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Monday, April 16, 2007

the monument to a lack of a monument

LI was going to spend this week threading through the crimes of classical liberalism. Heavy emphasis, in other words, on the famine in Ireland, which served as a template for the series of famines in India.

This is how we were going to start: with that most familiar of strangers in a strange land, the Martian. If a Martian were to make a quick visit to D.C.’s National Mall, what information would he gather about the U.S.? He’d see that the U.S. had a pharaoh named George Washington; a great white father, Abraham Lincoln; that the U.S. was very concerned about the crimes of German history; and that some kind of disaster or war happened named Vietnam.

From our monuments, the Martian would never know that there was such a thing as a black American. And he would certainly never know that there was such a thing as slavery in the U.S.

It has long been a sort of joke that the American government is much happier exploring the horrors visited by Germany on the Jews than the horrors visited upon blacks by white plantation owners, some of whom wrote the original documents that founded these here states. However, going past the local issue, my moral is that the martian is us - we are in the position of the martian when we visit the past – or that part of the past that extends beyond the body of our memories, that extends beyond the memories of two or three generations. There is a history of the surface and a history of the vaults, and there no law that says that what happened in the vaults will be monumentalized on the surface. On the contrary, histories have a double purpose: to erect monuments and to create and communicate erasures. But those of us who are critical martians – moi, f’rinstance – have a perverse urge to counter this history, to take down the monuments and fill in the blanks. LI’s motive in throwing in our lot with the critical martians is simple: we are fated for blankhood. Poor, aberrant, marginal – what the fuck do we have to lose?

To give a small example of what we mean: David Gilmour, a very good historian, wrote a biography of Lord Curzon a few years ago. In the bio, he devotes four pages to the famine in India that occurred while Curzon was the Viceroy of India. He never, in this account, actually tells the reader how big the famine was. That is, he never mentions that it killed between 3 and 4 million people (as calculated by Arup Maharatna, quoted by Mike Davis in the Victorian Holocaust). Imagine a man writing a book about Stalin’s leadership in the thirties and simply skipping the famine in the Ukraine. It isn’t that this is Gilmour’s fault, of course – this is just how colonial history has come to be written. In 1930, though, the reach of generational memory would make such insouciance a little harder – and, indeed, the way the Bolsheviks responded to and used the famine in the Ukraine was very much influenced by the model provided by the British of seeing famines as providential genocides, mass murders by a Darwinian god that, luckily, were prefigured in the market – for after all, demand goes down when the demanders are dead – and so food prices, by the superbly beneficent invisible hand, go down too.

The conventions of telling the history of the British in India – at least, in the Anglosphere – are different from the conventions of telling the history of the Soviet Union. That the amount of food given to prisoners in the Gulags, and the amount of work they were required to do (which resulted in their mass deaths) matches the amount of food distributed by the British to starving Indians in the labor camps they set up, which was also directly linked to the amount of work they did – the British having the idea that a man weighing 70 pounds and eating, on the whole, a pound of rice a day really ought to be able to work at breaking rocks for nine hours a day – makes no difference in the difference with which the stories will be told. One is a crime of communism itself; the other is an unfortunate sideproduct of all the good the British brought to India – railroads, for instance, that could quickly and efficiently take rice away from India peasants and transport it to hungry Englishmen a world away; big canals into which mineral salts would leach, instead of the system of small, capillary irrigation canals that had maintained small landholders in India for centuries, and that the British regarded as impediment to the needful consolidation of agricultural properties.

So what I was going to do in some threads this week was tie together Classical liberalism and communism, not as opposites but as positions on a spectrum compounded, materially, of a system of production that both ideologies sought to encode – but that both, also, fully accepted.

But LI doesn’t know whether we have the energy to pursue this thread this week. We will see.

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