by Shane Morris
As a student of history, I cannot help but notice patterns emerge. True, I never attended college to study history, and I can scarcely boast a 10th grade education, but damnit - I love to read and learn about history. This week, I kept thinking about a quote by Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc.
“Whatever happens, we have got The Maxim gun, and they have not.”
He’s referring to the machine gun, and its role in colonialism. When we think about history, its two biggest shaping forces are technology and disease - especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. When Europe was busy colonizing the entire world, they had a distinct advantage in terms of military technology. If you can fire 1,000 bullets in one minute, and your opposition can only fire 10, you have a technological advantage your enemy does not. That’s where the quote above comes into play, and in today’s terms, here’s a rough translation…
"We will fucking win, because we can blow them the fuck up." (See, this is why I’m not a poet. I have a mullet. I’ll let the f-bombs flow like water.)
I’m meandering here, and before I go into the “modern” side, I need to dig a little deeper, so even if this seems like I’m rambling - I’m not. Let’s think for a moment about colonial India under British rule. During the earliest years, there were 300 million Indian people, and barely 1,000 British people. So, how the fuck did that work out? Why would India just give up like that?
“Whatever happens, we have got The Maxim gun, and they have not.”
Oh, right - the gun thing. Sure, India could have resisted, but that wasn’t going to work out well for them. The metaphor is directly tied to military superiority, and a technological advantage. There might only be 1,000 or so British troops, but if they have machine guns, overwhelming logistics, and stronger fortifications, resistance is futile.
The purpose of imperialism wasn’t just to “take over” a country through murderous force. Traditional colonial imperialism was a lot more like strong arm mob tactics. “Hey, how ‘bout this, eh guy? You’re gonna pay us for protection. We’d hate to see all the windows in this beautiful shop broken out, so here’s what we’ll do for ya: Protect ya. And, well, ya know, we’ll just take a certain cut of the profits in exchange.”
What happens if you don’t give them money? Well, your metaphorical windows get broken - by the same people claiming to protect you. If you can understand mob violence, you can understand colonialism. It’s all about extracting profits under the halo of “we will seriously fuck you up” - and that’s why it never works for long.
If you follow the rules, it doesn’t totally suck for everyone. Under British colonial rule, many affluent and upper-class Indian people received the benefits of British education. Mahatma Gandhi went to school in England because his parents had alliances with semi-wealthy British people. In fact, most of India was ruled by Indian princes, under the heavy-handed direction of the British monarchy. It’s sort of like this: “You can do whatever you want to do, as long as you’re doing what we tell you to do first.”
It seemed like a pretty decent deal, until the British kept upping the ante on how much money they extracted from the Indian economy. Colonialism ends up creating two classes of citizens within the country being colonized. You have the people aligning themselves with the wealthy imperialists, and a super-poor class of people living in a country with an exploited lower-class, and diminishing resources to share.
Generally speaking, the poor people usually get wise and revolt. In fact, this happens every time there is a massive inequality in class division, in any country, at any time, regardless of whether or not colonialism is involved.
Time to fast forward. You ready?
The United States spends around $700 Billion annually on the military. From a purely academic standpoint, there is no country in the world capable of defeating the United States in an all out war. This state of spending is analogous to Belloc’s “Maxim gun” in colonial times. We have military technology other countries do not have, so they can fight us and lose, or do what we say and stay alive.
Imperialism usually comes under the guise of, “We’re helping them out.” In the days of European colonialism, they did it “for the good of the world” and giving them better government, technology, and protection. The British managed to extract more salt from the Indian continent with their technology, and the “sell” was how much more wealth that would give the Indian people. “We’ll help you make more money, and in return, you can just give us some money for our efforts.”
Is that actually how it worked? Absolutely not.
In modern times, we saw the United States invade Iraq and Afghanistan under the guise of “spreading freedom and democracy”, and the overthrow of oppressive regimes. Our own propaganda was spread throughout American media outlets until the prevailing wisdom among the populace was that we were helping the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, when you really think about what happened, it’s really a lot like what happened over a century ago with the colonization of Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, India, etc. The United States took over Iraq and Afghanistan under the guise of the Maxim gun idea. You can fight us all you want, but you can’t win - so you might as well do what we say.
Iraq and Afghanistan held elections, and the people were given back the power - supposedly. It’s just that there’s one little problem: Those people are closely aligned with American interests. Sure, there were elections, but the elections were choices between people America wanted in power, and other people America wanted in power. There weren’t really any winners or losers, because no matter what happened, America won.
Modern imperialism and colonialism is just a little different, because rather than extracting raw materials and goods or taxing the citizens directly, we’re installing American infrastructure designed to feed American corporations. We want the people of Iraq and Afghanistan buying American goods, and we also want American companies to have control of their fossil fuel interests.
The colonial-style ideas also spread beyond the borders of countries we have our military parked in. Our Maxim gun is now parked in everyone’s backyard, as a constant reminder of our military capability. “As long as you’re doing what we say, and playing by our rules, we won’t fuck you up.”
Supporters of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are quick to point out the economic recovery and growth in the wake of U.S. occupation. “They’re getting wealthier. Look at all the new industrial jobs we are creating. They are free now!” While it is true American companies have created jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are also sucking money out of their economy like never before.
Rather than taxing the people of Iraq and Afghanistan in the ways old imperialists did, we’re taking their money in the way all great capitalists do: Making them spend their new money on stuff we sell to them. Coke, Pepsi, Apple, Maytag, etc. When you create a new upper-middle class, you also need stuff the upper-middle class can spend their new wealth on. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan have been leveraged against their own economies, by the American economy. If we control what is sold in the malls, then we can be assured the only goods they can purchase will be ones made by American companies.
The growth isn’t coming from internal expansion within Iraq and Afghanistan. We are simply seeing the growth of our economy into their country. Why drink a brand of soda made by an Iraqi company, when you can drink a cold, refreshing Coca Cola from Atlanta, Georgia. Why purchase Iraqi electronics when you can purchase an iPhone, made by Apple of Cupertino, California.
By building a trade deficit, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are forced to play whatever games with their oil production we ask them to play. By introducing our economy into theirs, we have dictated the terms of the money faucet. Unfortunately, that money isn’t going to the American middle class - even though American taxpayers funded the “Maxim gun” allowing it to happen.
Through an extensive network of defense contractors, the only industry generating any real revenue from the imperialism is… well… defense contractors. We see this in real terms when you hear about Americans going overseas to work for a contractor, and they come back with $100,000 for a year’s work. The reason this is happening is not because of economic growth overseas, but because of local markets and their atrophic response to American expansion. When we send Americans to Iraq and Afghanistan to work under a contract, it also means someone in Iraq or Afghanistan is not working the same job. A “plus one” for the United States is actually a net “minus ten” for them.
Why is our “plus one” a “minus ten” when it translates? Cost of living. Any time we take that much money from their economy, you need to consider cost of living scales down. Our cost of living is significantly higher than theirs. Therefore, $100,000 could easily support 10 middle class families in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The American media is failing to cover the rise of revolutionary conditions our occupation has created. We’re creating a massive group of people without work, and without access to education, or any upward mobility. Historically, this has been done before by the British, Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc. We are repeating the same patterns, but with new iterations and methods.
Those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it, and sadly, I feel this is the road we are headed down as Americans. It’s not an Obama/Romney thing. What we are looking at is an endemic flaw of the collective American psyche. We’ve been numbed by the media to our actual dealings overseas, until all we understand collectively is just how “bad” they are, and how important it is for us to be there, keeping them “free” and maintaining American safety.
Sometimes, believe it or not, it’s not all about oil. While petroleum products are a piece of the puzzle, this problem is largely a byproduct of the blind nature of capitalism, and what happens when the correct balances aren’t put into place. Colonialism happens when one country forcibly begins extracting money from another country by means of coercion. Imperialism happens when the collective consciousness of a country becomes okay with failing to ask the big questions, and accepting the answers their government provides.
We know from history that what we’re doing cannot work, because eventually, exploited people get tired of seeing all their hard work and resources given away to greedy people. Someday, the people we’re exploiting will fight all the systems we put in place, and the American economy will be compromised, because we stretched too far, got greedy, and and continued expanding.
It is imperative now, more than ever, that Americans remember the analogue of what a Maxim gun truly represents. Imperialism doesn’t work. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.