Both Colonial and Imperial enterprises were informed by “social Darwinism”. That is, the “West”-not to be understood in mere geographic terms but in cultural ones and assuming that was certain coherence to this construct- had, on account of its Renaissance and Industrial Revolution, evolved into something superior. Or, in other words, it was a superior entity and the peoples’ constituting the Western firmament were “superior”. Given this superiority, it was the duty of the West to “civilize” other peoples. This “civilizing” mission came to be called as the “White Man’s Burden. (White Man’s Burden was initially a poem written by Rudyard Kipling to extol the virtues of and encourage Imperialism. It was written in the context of the American –Philippine War). This assumption of superiority was internalized by many and besides economic and power –political reasons constituted the grist to the mill of colonialism and imperialism. Importantly, the evolution into a superior organic entity did not go away with the frazzling away of Imperialism. The West was and , in some senses, still is held to be the yardstick and benchmark of civilization and modernity- in domains as varied as culture, economics, systems , philosophy and politics. But the question is: Is this assumption or belief true?
This question assumes salience and poignancy in a world where linear and staid assumptions about political and social life are turning topsy-turvy. It is a world where the West is turning not only inward but also against itself. Perhaps best epitomized by the assumption of Donald Trump to the highest office of the United States in the sense of unleashing of forces within the lodestar of the West- the United States- that are avowedly “illiberal” and “insular”, the trend suggests that the West is not as “evolved” as has been made out. The aim here is not to denigrate the West or demean it; instead, the premise is to put the human condition into perspective. We, humans, are all the same. This is the fundamental insight that accrues from the forces of populism that are ravaging across most of the Western world.
The reasons for nativist populism, which some hold to have accrued from “liberal overreach”, appear essentially, to flow from primeval instincts of fear and insecurity. The large, impersonal forces unleashed by meta-historical trends like globalization – economic, cultural and even political- threatened many people within the West at a range of levels. At a cultural level, immigrant/refugee flows into the West led to what may be called a “culture shock”; “different peoples” or more accurately peoples from different cultures came into contact with Western societies. This blended with economic globalization where certain jobs and manufacturing migrated to the “ East”. In combination with wars, epidemics and terrorism, these complementary forces and the trends these generated, created fear and insecurity amongst natives of the Western world. Fear and insecurity coalesced together and was projected onto politics. In the melee, Trump and Company presented themselves as answers to the existential issues and angst defining much of the Western world.
The point is fundamental insecurities and fears- very human and perhaps even natural- animated denizens and native citizens of the Western world and made them project these onto the politics and polities of their respective countries. Fears, insecurities and aspirations are the common denominators of humans and “civilizations”. These define, animate and motivate us. The “West” and “Westerners” then are no different from the “Rest”. We are all the same and we are in it together, so to speak.
What then accounted for Imperialism and Colonialism? And what accounts for difference(s) that define the world?
I cannot offer a definitive and vigorous answer to the former question. I am not a scholar of either imperialism or colonialism and I have a rudimentary understanding of either. All I can offer is an amateur and reductive explanation: both imperialism and colonialism might have been motivated and informed by a quest for power, resources and another human “need”- the need of/for the “Other” to validate and affirm the existence of oneself. In terms of difference(s) that define the world, culture and societal differences might be said to account for these. But the sad fact these that these differences, despite being constructs, are so profound and ingrained, that we hold them to be real.
In the final analysis, cultures, cultural differences and even civilizations are constructs that hold our imaginations in thrall. However, in essence, we are all the same- motivated by similar fears, insecurities and animated by same aspirations. The tragedy is that that despite our essential sameness, we latch on and persist in our “differences”. But then, this might be what the human condition is all about. Alas!