Reflection by Will Glovinsky
Civilizing War’s striking methodology turns the study of empire inside out: imperialism usually describes a relation of domination between nation-states, colonies, and postcolonies, but Nasser Mufti’s highly original account locates a key logic of empire in the divisions within those entities. Social antagonism and civil war emerge in this book not just as the animating tensions of any “imagined community” (the stakes of which term Mufti brilliantly revitalizes) but also, and more strangely, as the historical and ideological cement of empire’s civilizing mission. If postcolonial civil wars are today seen as problems of underdevelopment best solved by foreign capital, Mufti argues that “civil war in the Victorian imagination described those antagonisms” – class struggle, domestic “race war” – “that were said to properly belong to places already civilized, where capitalist modernity had already arrived” (7). The capacity for civil war, that is, proved a nation was civilized – and fit to civilize others.
Michel Foucault’s inverted Clausewitzian maxim “politics is the continuation of war by other means” surfaces quite often in Civilizing War, and Mufti brings together the more figurative and the all-too-literal meanings of civil war with impressive results. By tracing the history of civil war discourse from the potential or intermittent violence of metropolitan class struggle (“a more or less veiled civil war,” The Communist Manifesto declared ) to decidedly “hotter” wars in colonies and postcolonies, Mufti is able to develop a flexible methodology that illuminates how imperial discourse has unevenly valorized civil conflict as quintessentially modern in Victorian Britain yet embarrassingly backward in the postcolony. But the discursive commensurability achieved in “war by other means” also left me wondering when and how the means should matter. Didn’t Victorians pique themselves precisely on their sense that Britain’s gradualist reforms had prevented class strife from becoming armed revolution? And how might attending to earlier civil wars by the usual means help to complicate the core-to-periphery narrative that Civilizing War uncovers?
Mufti writes, for example, that at “the beginning of Victoria’s reign civil war was something exclusive to the metropole” (109). The claim is bold and intriguing because British imperial conquests were explained throughout the 19th century as the pacification of societies rent by internal conflict. The East India Company administrator John Malcolm repeated a well worn argument when he wrote in The Political History of India (1826) that the Company had triumphed largely because “the different princes of India were contending for the fragments of the broken [Mughal] empire, every province of which was distracted by their petty wars.”[i] Here Mufti’s illuminating analysis of civility discourse primes us to notice how a civil war became “petty,” and how that dismissal links the moment of conquest up with the book’s discussion of postcolonial conflict in Nostromo’s Costaguana. Yet it also encourages us to consider how not just Britain but British India too was, at one time, imagined through a “poetics of national rupture” (15). And if Victorians ultimately arrogated to themselves the category of ‘civil war’ as advanced capitalism’s class or race struggle, then we might ask what specific conceptual mechanism made Indians – “a people for ages civilized and cultivated,” according to Edmund Burke – suddenly incapable of civil conflict under Orientalist eyes?[ii] Could it be that the “phase zero” of Civilizing War’s impressive historical arc lies not in European class struggle, but rather in the non-Western civil wars that were first empire’s justification and, much later, its tragic consequence?
[i]John Malcolm, The Political History of India, from 1784 to 1823, vol. 1 (London: J. Murray, 1826), 5–6.
[ii]Edmund Burke, “The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. 5: India: Madras and Bengal: 1774–1785,” July 23, 1981, 389, http://oxfordscholarlyeditions.com/view/10.1093/actrade/9780198224174.book.1/actrade-9780198224174-book-1.