Postcolonial Guilt, Revisionism, and the Idea of Progress

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Reg (John Cleese), the leader of the People’s Front of Judea, implores his party: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” – from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a delightful re-telling of the story of Jesus in a secular and historical context, finding its humour in the conflict between orthodox and invariably religious interpretations of the time, and a more ‘enlightened’ understanding, based on archaeology and academic research. As it wends its way through its telling of life in a Roman colony, the real politique is surfaced in the resistance movement the People’s Front of Judea (PFJ). During one of their serious and clearly well intentioned meetings, the leader Reg berates the Romans for their oppression of the poor Galileans, asking in a fit of rhetorical pique ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ One lonely voice suggests ‘the aqueduct’, which Reg grudgingly concedes. Another suggests ‘sanitation’. Several others venture still more technologies, which Reg attempts to summarise thus: ‘All right, but apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’

One year before the movie was released, Edward Said had published Orientalism, in 1978. In that work, he lays out a theory describing how ‘the West’ misunderstood ‘the East’, and in its colonial ventures had stumbled and failed in dominating these places as a result. Said’s focus was on more recent colonial endeavours, but Python’s satire was targeted firmly in the same space. The more recent debates on the impact of colonialism have attempted to reverse the trend that has persisted since the late twentieth century – to believe that colonialism was bad for indigenous peoples. I don’t wish to delve too deeply into the rights or wrongs of that – though my wife Kate O’Dwyer’s work on cultural genocide and the case for reparations is compelling – but rather upon the metric that it depends upon: the idea of progress.

In my last post, I tried to understand a little the relationship between progress and technology – and here we have it again. In Python’s Jerusalem, the PFJ accepted that Roman colonisation had advanced society in terms of technology. Yet there were clear social stratifications, where the Romans lived in opulence, and the indigenous people were poor. In the recent debates on colonialism, the debate about India and Britain, for example, tends to focus on railways and the civil service, and whether India would have developed such innovations independently. (I am conscious that I am doing the breadth of the debate some disservice here, but for the purposes of this subject it will have to do!) Do technologies such as railways and the aqueduct constitute progress?

As my previous post also mentioned, there are those who would argue that the idea of progress itself is absurd. Man remains essentially as he is; vulnerable, mortal, and weak, in the face of awesome forces such as climate, oceans and asteroids. Man persists as an alienated hypocrite: each inhabiting a socially constructed identity, that fundamentally denies his essential humanity. This is deemed a necessary order, we call it civilization. There are other words: it is rational, enlightened, and logical. Descartes identified a dualism between the physical and the spiritual, which Damasio decided had been in error: dogs and cats have the same physical and biological functions as we humans do, it’s just that their gifts are not as advanced – and therefore there is no dualism, only varying degrees of rationality. My essay on The Neoliberal Inevitability of Vegetarian Hegemony has aged well in my thinking, even if the title is a little playful. However there remains it seems a very real dualism: in the first instance, the animal man, man in his Hobbesian State of Nature, bearing base instincts of what Machiavelli called virtu, what Plato referred to as thumos, and what Hobbes again referred to as vainglory; Freud thought it was all about motherhood, sex and power. In the second instance, there is alienated, documented, instrumented man (Ronald Day), the cyborg (Chris Hables-Gray) with the shrinking head (Dany-Robert Dufour), a neoliberal commodity.

Theodor Adorno’s Progress, an essay in the 2005 book Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, identifies the need for a global subject in order to situate progress. ‘Today, reflections of this kind come to a point in the contemplation of whether humanity is capable of preventing global catastrophe,’ Adorno declares.  ‘The forms of humanity’s own global societal constitution threaten its life, if a self-conscious global subject does not develop and intervene. The possibility of progress, of averting the most extreme, total disaster, has migrated to this global subject alone.’ (p. 144) The point here is that progress in the current discourse is a group phenomenon, a measure of social or cultural advancement in some way. This allows for – for example – the Internet to be recognised as progress, for it advances the communications capability of everyone; and while there can be some arguments that the Internet is not equally distributed, its essential value of remote connectivity, derived from the telephone network (and in particular wireless technology) has reached just about every part of the inhabited world, and is accessible to all who wish to use it. Here, Adorno borrows from Kant, who in the Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose argued that ‘…the development of all natural capacities…’ could be ‘…fulfilled only by mankind in society.’ Progress interpreted as ‘the development of all natural capacities’ can only be ascribed to a social subject.

This takes us all the way back to Rousseau and the concept of the General Will, the concept of the sovereign. The idea was that to become free, one had to submit one’s freedom so that the sovereign (the people) could in turn present that freedom back, while at the same time assigning limitations that allowed for maximum freedom for all within the construct of a functioning and reasonable society. This imaginary person, Rousseau’s sovereign, or Adorno’s universal subject, is a thing necessary for general theories. ‘Who are we?’, the fundamental question of critical theory, must begin with ‘who am I?’, whereupon we’re back to Descartes again – cogito ergo sum. Dare we make assumptions to get us beyond this point?

As I said, in this piece I am not engaging in the rights and wrongs of colonialism, and whether the British for example were in some objective sense ‘good’ for India, or just engaged in oppressive resource spoliation. However, as a metric for comparative purposes, ‘progress’ seems to be fraught with difficulty. India, it might be argued, had more diamonds before the British arrived, and fewer when they left. India had a structured bureaucracy at the time of independence that it had not had before, but it also had unified peoples who had never before been under a single government, and new borders and tensions with Pakistan and what was to become Bangladesh. These are recorded outcomes of the British withdrawal, and can be assessed for their value, as can possible alternative scenarios for natural resources and institutional development be speculated upon, had the British not been there. But to argue that India, as some kind of coherent person, could have progressed under the Raj seems to be to be a rather pointless discussion.


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