Six Migrants and Their Descendants Who Made History: Yet Another Outtake from "Slouching Towards Utopia?: An Economic History of the Long Twentieth Century, 1870-2016"

“An Extraordinary Episode in the Economic Progress of Man!”: Yet Another Outtake from "Slouching Towards Utopia?: An Economic History of the Long Twentieth Century, 1870-1914"


Il Quarto Stato

“An Extraordinary Episode in the Economic Progress of Man!”

Yet all in all it is not possible to see the 1870-1914 making of the single global economy—and society—as anything other than an extraordinary and wonderful episode in the history of humanity. Looking back from 1919 on the optimistic, economists’ world that he had thought he had lived in up until the start of World War I in August 1914, John Maynard Keynes wrote, in his Keynes-centric upper-class-focused way:

What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914!... Conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages. The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages.... He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate....

But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice…

And for those who were not part of the British upper class, it was still the case that the world on the eve of World War I was more prosperous and less inhuman than it had ever been before.

Yet turning this potential, and to a substantial degree actual, progress into a move in the direction of utopia really did require that humanity grow up—and not in the sense of Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” of European proconsuls using the maxim gun to tell everybody what to do.

Rather, it required what Norman Angell wanted to bring into being:

It is not we who are the “theorists”, if by “theorists” is meant the constructors of elaborate and deceptive theorems in this matter. It is our opponents, the military mystics.... What... makes these fantastic political doctrines possible... are a few false general conceptions... that nations are rival and struggling units, that military force is consequently the determining factor of their relative advantage; that enlargement of political frontiers is the supreme need, and so on. And the revision of these fundamental conceptions will... be the work of individual men. States do not think. It is the men who form the states who think...

Was humanity growing up? In the final analysis, even Rudyard Kipling did not think so. Let us give the mic again to him, writing on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897:

God of our fathers, known of old/Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold/Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet/Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies/The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice/An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet/Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away/On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet/Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose/Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use/Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet/Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust/In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust/And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

One task that Kipling is accomplishing in this poem is the reversal of the European/non-European civilization/barbarism trope. In the same way as Joseph Conrad’s protagonist in Heart of Darkness travels up the Congo River into a land that is supposed to be the heart of darkness and yet finds that the true heart of darkness is the heart of European colonizer Kurtz, so the “heathen heart” is he who puts his trust in modern European industrial military technology, and the “lesser breeds without the Law” are German and Russian imperial policymakers who fear God not—and whom Kipling fears that the British policymakers are becoming. Perhaps the best paraphrase of the poem is: We here in Britain have great power; with great power comes great responsibility.

And if the 1870-1914 wave of imperial conquest had not taught everybody that humanity had not grown up, come 1914 the start of World War I would do do the teaching.

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