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.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era