Niall Ferguson's ignorant defence of British rule in India

Oddly for a historian, Ferguson doesn't appear to have taken much notice of history.

There were extensive power cuts across India in late July and early August. This created the opportunity for celebrity historian and recent Reith lecturer Professor Niall Ferguson to go on the attack. Ferguson opens his article in Newsweek with a reminder of how India used to be:

The British—slightly less than a thousand of them—used to govern India. Without air-conditioning....There was a reason the British moved their capital to the cool Himalayan hill station of Simla every summer. Maybe today’s Indian government should consider following their example.

He quotes Kipling approvingly, before going on to argue that it's all socialism's fault anyway:

India’s electricity grid has missed every capacity addition target since 1951. The system is so dilapidated that 27 percent of the power it carries is lost as a result of leakage and theft. Even today, 300 million people—a quarter of the population—don’t have access to the grid. That’s one reason the blackout didn’t spark more public ire.
 
The root of the problem is one of many leftovers of India’s post-independence experiment with socialism. Half of India’s power stations are coal-fired. Indian coal is produced by a state monopoly (Coal India). The price is controlled by the state, as is the price of electricity itself. The private firms running power stations are trapped between a lump of coal and a hard place. They cannot even trust the regional distributors to order the right amount of power.

Ah yes, if only Britain were still in charge, everyone in India would have aircon and iced tea on tap....
 
Oddly for a historian, though, Ferguson doesn't appear to have taken much notice of history. Britain governed India for 50 years beyond the first electricity supplies in the 1890s. In that 50 years to independence in 1947, a total of 1,500 of India's 640,000 villages were connected to the grid. During that time, pretty well all of Britain was electrified, along with the rest of Europe and America. After independence, this is what happened:

In other words, under the seven five year plans from 1947 to 1991, the Indian government brought electricity to roughly 320 times as many villages as British colonialism managed in a similar time span.
 
This is not to say that India does not face major challenges in ensuring secure power supplies in face of its burgeoning demand from its cities, and the ongoing need of the rural areas not yet reached. But for Ferguson to insinuate that Indians are in some way less capable than their colonial masters betrays a startling ignorance of what colonialism did to India in the first place.
 
Put simply, the British colonial powers had no interest in the Indian people. India was what Acemoglu and Robinson refer to in Why Nations Fail as an "extractive colony". As a result, the formation of the Indian state and its institutions was so severly stunted that, even today, India can no longer be seen as anything like a 'complete state' of the type that developed organically, over several centuries, in Europe and then America (see here for a fuller analysis of the case of India, based on Charles Tilly's groundbreaking work).
 
For Ferguson simply to set the long term consequences of colonialism to one side, in favour of a simplistic view of why India is where it is now - a paradox not of its own making - confirms his fall from decent historian to celebrity charlatan, interested more in soundbite opportunity than in real economics and history.

Historian Niall Ferguson with his wife, the Dutch writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photograph: Getty Images.

Paul Cotterill is a blogger for Liberal Conspiracy and Though Cowards Flinch.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism