Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Colonialism and Exploitation

At Catallarchy, Matt McIntosh has responded to my response to his initial article on Mill and polycentric law. Matt raises some good points there; go check it out.

But this post isn't really a reply to Matt, but rather to part of the discussion thread in Matt's post. There Dain criticized my arguments as neocolonialist and suggested that colonialism and exploitation are necessarily connected. Actually, to be precise, he suggests that I recall Lord Acton's Dictum ("power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"). I must confess, though, that I'm not sure that I see how Dain's point necessarily follows from Lord Acton's Dictum. Certainly absolute power seems likely to result in exploitation. What I don't see is any reason for thinking that colonialism entails absolute power. I'll come back to that. For now, here's how Dain puts the point:
There is a reason that coercive power and domination has historically resulted in exploitation. It’s because it is exploitative!
I'm going to try to put the point more formally:
E: Necessarily, for all actions A and all persons R and Q, if R's act A is both a use of coercive power and an attempt at dominating Q, then R has exploited Q.
It strikes me right off the bat that E is just simply false on its face. Consider two examples.
  • I tell my three-year-old that he must sleep in his own bed at night and threaten to close and lock his door if he continues to get out of his bed.
  • A warden at a maximum-security prison tells a recalcitrant prisoner that he must either stop throwing food at other prisoners or be sent into solitary confinement.
Now I would submit that both of these cases involve the use of coercive power and that, moreover, both are an attempt at at least a limited sort of domination. I also suggest that neither my son nor the prisoner has been exploited. Indeed, a parent teaching a child to sleep in his own bed or a warden teaching a prisoner to cease assaulting fellow-inmates with peas seem like perfectly legitimate uses of coercive power and domination. Why? Because children and inmates are appropriate targets for coercion and (certain forms of) domination.

To make E true, then, we would need to modify it slightly.
E': Necessarily, for all actions A and all persons R and Q, if R's act A is both a use of coercive power and an attempt at dominating Q, then R has exploited Q, if and only if Q falls into the category of persons who are not properly subject to coercive power and domination.
Now obviously much here would turn on how we cashed out the final caveat. That itself is going to require that we determine what, exactly, is the nature of personhood and to what sorts of things it ought properly to apply. Make the definition too broad and parenting becomes an act of exploitation. Make it too narrow and slavery might creep back in. While I can't possibly answer this question in a blog post, suffice it to say that it's at least arguable that people who are horribly oppressing one another may fall into the same category as the prisoner. You may well disagree, but that disagreement will at least require some argument. Simply asserting E isn't going to be sufficient.

But let's leave that aside for the moment. Suppose that one were to construct an appropriate definition of personhood such that E' applies to subjects of colonial powers. That would give us:
P: For all persons Q, if Q is an ordinary citizen of a nation that is to be subject to a colonial authority, then Q falls into the category of persons who are not properly subject to coercive power and domination.
But even E' and P together do not entail that all colonialism is exploitative. For that to be the case, we would need to add a third claim.
C: For all actions A and all persons R and Q, if R's action A is an instance of colonialism, and if Q is an ordinary citizen of the nation that is to be subject to A, then necessarily R's action A involves coercion of Q and an attempt to dominate Q.
From E', P and C it does follow that all acts of colonialism are also exploitative. But C strikes me as being false, too. Why does it follow that every act of colonialism is exploitative? Consider, say, the eradication of sati (the immolation of widows on their husband's funeral pyres) in India. As General Sir Charles James Napier is reported to have said:
You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.
Napier, and the British more generally, effectively stamped out the practice of sati. This was the act of a colonial power countering an established custom, one that was enforced by communities rather than by the rule of law. Indeed, the practice was supposed to be purely voluntary. And that of course is exactly how it typically worked out. Because a lot of women really like jumping into fire. Note, too, that only widows and not widowers were expected to immolate themselves. Go figure.

At any rate, my point here is that the abolition of sati by the British is clearly an act of colonialism. What's also clear to me (as, I think, it will be to anyone not totally caught up in the grips of ideology) is that the act was not an act of exploitation.

All this is not to say that I think colonialism is just fine and dandy. There are all sorts of reasons to think that it is likely to slide into exploitation and that it therefore ought to be used rarely if at all. Still, it's hard to see where there is any conceptual reason to think that all acts of colonialism are necessarily problematic. But then I'm a consequentialist. We're up for just about anything.


Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

But then I'm a consequentialist. We're up for just about anything.

Now that is a pickup worth trying on a cute philosophy major.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Mitchell Ullman said...

They make those?

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Mitchell Ullman said...

Oh, and btw...

I think that the issue here is one of syntax; at least where Dain is concerned. He is merely equating dominion with exploitation. While I do believe that the tendency, in the context of colonialism, does appear to lean toward this being the case, you make an excellent case against the confusion that I believe is occurring.

On the other hand, I'm not certain that the slope has been evened out enough for me to jump on the colonialist bandwagon. I have, as you know from class, considered a greatly restricted form of colonialism as a possible 'necessary evil.' But there remains the issue that exists behind the scenes. It is the same one that I brought up briefly at Jimi's the other night. I've yet to see a capitalist system in action. Iff there were a true capitalist system(or one with a little Rawls built-in) I would feel a bit more comfortable with the colonialist idea. However, since the world doesn't actually work on an 'all things being equal' basis, I'm going to remain fairly skeptical about colonialism, just as I am with most economic systems! I guess what I'm saying is... I want the "total package" before I start throwing my hat in.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

They make those?

Yes, they sure do.

11:27 PM  

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