Facts and Comments (1902)

by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

This online edition of Spencer’s Facts and Comments is a work in progress.
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Imperialism and Slavery

FC-24.1 “You shall submit! We are masters and we will make you acknowledge it!” These words express the sentiment which sways the British nation in its dealings with the Boer republics; and this sentiment it is which, definitely displayed in this case, pervades indefinitely the political feeling now manifesting itself as Imperialism. Supremacy, where not clearly imagined, is vaguely present in the background of consciousness. Not the derivation of the word only, but all its uses and associations, imply the thought of predominance – imply a correlative subordination. Actual or potential coercion of others, individuals or communities, is necessarily involved in the conception.
FC-24.2 There are those, and unhappily they form the great majority, who think there is something noble (morally as well as historically) in the exercise of command – in the forcing of others to abandon their own wills and fulfil the will of the commander. I am not about to contest this sentiment. I merely say that there are others, unhappily but few, who think it ignoble to bring their fellow creatures into subjection, and who think the noble thing is not only to respect their freedom but also to defend it. Leaving this matter undiscussed, my present purpose is to show those who lean towards Imperialism, that the exercise of mastery inevitably entails on the master himself some form of slavery, more or less pronounced. The uncultured masses, and even the greater part of the cultured, will regard this statement as absurd; and though many who have read history with an eye to essentials rather than trivialities know that this is a paradox in the right sense – that is, true in fact though not seeming true – even they are not fully conscious of the mass of evidence establishing it, and will be all the better for having illustrations recalled. Let me begin with the earliest and simplest, which well serves to symbolize the whole.
FC-24.3 Here is a prisoner with hands tied and a cord round his neck (as suggested by figures in Assyrian bas-reliefs) being led home by his savage conqueror, who intends to make him a slave. The one, you say, is captive and the other free? Are you quite sure the other is free? He holds one end of the cord, and unless he means to let his captive escape, he must continue to be fastened by keeping hold of the cord in such way that it cannot easily be detached. He must be himself tied to the captive while the captive is tied to him. In other ways his activities are impeded and certain burdens are imposed on him. A wild animal crosses the track, and he cannot pursue. If he wishes to drink of the adjacent stream, he must tie up his captive lest advantage be taken of his defenceless position. Moreover he has to provide food for both. In various ways, then, he is no longer completely at liberty; and these ways adumbrate in a simple manner the universal truth that the instrumentalities by which the subordination of others is effected, themselves subordinate the victor, the master, or the ruler.
FC-24.4 The coincidence in time between the South African war and the recent outburst of Imperialism, illustrates the general truth that militancy and Imperialism are closely allied – are, in fact, different manifestations of the same social condition. It could not, indeed, be otherwise. Subject races or subject societies, do not voluntarily submit themselves to a ruling race or a ruling society: their subjection is nearly always the effect of coercion. An army is the agency which achieved it, and an army must be kept ever ready to maintain it. Unless the supremacy has actual or potential force behind it there is only federation, not Imperialism. Here, however, as above implied, the purpose is not so much to show that an imperial society is necessarily a militant society, as to show that in proportion as liberty is diminished in the societies over which it rules, liberty is diminished within its own organization.
FC-24.5 The earliest records furnish an illustration. Whether in the times of the pyramid-builders the power of the Egyptian autocrat, which effected such astounding results, was qualified by an elaborate system of restraints, we have no evidence; but there is proof that in later days he was the slave of the governmental organization.
“The laws subjected every action of his private life to as severe a scrutiny as his behaviour in the administration of affairs. The hours of washing, walking, and all the amusements and occupations of the day, were settled with precision, and the quantity as well as the quality of his food were regulated by law.” (Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, Birch’s ed. of Wilkinson, vol. I, 166.)
Moreover the relation between enslavement of foreign peoples and enslavement of the nation which conquered them, is shown by an inscription at Karnak, which describes “how bitterly the country was paying the price of its foreign conquests, in its oppression by it standing army.” (Flinders Petrie, History of Egypt, ii. 252.)
FC-24.6 Turn we now to a society of widely different type but exhibiting the same general truths – that of Sparta. The conquering race, or Spartans proper, who had beneath them the Periœci and the Helots, descendants of two subject races, were not only supreme over these but twice became the supreme race of the Peleponnesus [sic – RTL]. What was the price they paid for their “imperial” position? The individual Spartan, master as he was over slaves and semi-slaves, was himself in bondage to the incorporated society of Spartans. Each led the life not which he himself chose but the life dictated by the aggregate of which he formed one unit. And this life was a life of strenuous discipline, leaving no space for culture, or art, or poetry, or other source of pleasure. He exemplified in an extreme degree the Grecian doctrine that the citizen does not belong to himself or to his family but to his city.
FC-24.7 If instead of the small and simple community of Sparta we take the vast and complex empire of Rome, we find this essential connexion between imperialism and slavery even more conspicuous. I do not refer to the fact that three-fourths of those who peopled Italy in imperial days were slaves, chained in the fields when at work, chained at night in their dormitories, and those who were porters chained to the doorways – conditions horrible to contemplate – but I refer to the fact that the nominally free part of the community consisted of grades of bondmen. Not only did citizens stand in that bondage implied by military service, complete or partial, under subjection so rigid that an officer was to be dreaded more than an enemy, but those occupied in civil or semi-civil life, were compelled to work for the public. “Everyone was treated in fact as a servant of the State ... the nature of each man’s labour was permanently fixed for him.” The society was formed of fighting serfs, working serfs, cultivating serfs, official serfs. And then what of the supreme head of this gigantic bureaucracy into which Roman society had grown – the Emperor? He became a puppet of the Pretorian guard, which while a means of safety was a cause of danger. Moreover he was in daily bondage to routine. As Gibbon says, “the emperor was the first slave of the ceremonies he imposed.” Thus in a conspicuous manner Rome shows how, as in other cases, a society which enslaves other societies enslaves itself.
FC-24.8 The same lesson is taught by those ages of seething confusion – of violence and bloodshed – which the collapse of the Roman empire left: an empire which dwells in the minds of many as something to be admired and emulated – the many who forgive any horrors if only their brute love of mastery is gratified, sympathetically when not actually. Passing over those sanguinary times in which the crimes of Clovis and Fredegonde and Brunehaut were typical, we come in the slow course of things to the emergence of the feudal régime – a régime briefly expressed by the four words, suzerains, vassals, serfs, slaves – a régime which, along with the perpetual struggles for supremacy among local rulers, and consequent chronic militancy, was characterized by the unqualified power of each chief or ruler, count or duke, within his own territory – a graduated bondage of all below him. The established form – “I am your man,” uttered by the vassal on his knees with apposed hands, expressed the relation of one grade to another throughout the society; and then, as usual, the master of slaves was himself enslaved by his appliances for maintaining life and power. He had the perpetual burden of arms and coat of mail, and the precautions to be taken now against assassination now against death by poison. And then when we come to the ultimate state in which the subordination of minor rulers by a chief ruler had become complete, and all counts and dukes were vassals of the king, we have not only the bondage entailed on the king by State-business with its unceasing anxieties, but the bondage of ceremonial with its dreary round. Speaking of this in France in the time of Louis le Grand, Madame de Maintenon remarks – “Save those only who fill the highest stations, I know of none more unfortunate than those who envy them. If you could only form an idea of what it is?”
FC-24.9 Merely referring to the extreme subjection of the ruler to his appliances for ruling which was reached in Japan, where the god-descended Mikado, imprisoned by the requirements of his sacred state, was debarred from ordinary freedoms, and in whose recluse life there were at one time such penalties as sitting for three hours daily on the throne – passing over, too, the case of China, where, as Prof. Douglas [Online editor’s note: probably Robert K. Douglas, turn-of-the-century author of a number of works on China. – RTL] tells us of the emperor “his whole life is one continual round of ceremonial observances,” and “from the day in which he ascends the throne to the time when he is carried to his tomb in the Eastern Hills, his hours and almost minutes have special duties appointed to them by the Board of Rites”; we may turn now to the conspicuous example furnished by Russia. Along with that unceasing subjugation of minor nationalities by which its imperialism is displayed, what do we see within its own organization? We have its vast army, to service in which every one is actually or potentially liable; we have an enormous bureaucracy ramifying everywhere and rigidly controlling individual lives; we have an expenditure ever outrunning resources and calling for loans. As a result of the pressure felt personally and pecuniarily, we have secret revolutionary societies, perpetual plots, chronic dread of social explosions; and while everyone is in danger of Siberia, we have the all-powerful head of this enslaved nation in constant fear for his life. Even when he goes to review his troops, rigorous precautions have to be taken by a supplementary army of soldiers, policemen, and spies, some forming an accompanying guard, some lying in wait here and there to prevent possible attacks; while similar precautions, which from time to time fail, have ever to be taken against assassination by explosion, during drives and railway-journeys. What portion of life is not absorbed in government-business and religious observances is taken up in self-preservation.
FC-24.10 And now what is the lesson? Is it that in our own case imperialism and slavery, everywhere else and at all times united, are not to be united? Most will say Yes. Nay they will join, as our Poet Laureate [Online editor’s note: Alfred Austin. – RTL] lately did in the title to some rhymes, the words “Imperialism and Liberty”; mistaking names for things as of old. Gibbon writes: –
“Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.” (Decline and Fall, i. 68.)
“Free!” thinks the Englishman. “How can I be other than free if by my vote I share in electing a representative who helps to determine the national transactions, home and foreign?” Delivering a ballot-paper he identifies with the possession of those unrestrained activities which liberty implies; though, to take but one instance, a threatened penalty every day reminds him that his children must be stamped with the State-pattern, not as he wills but as others will.
FC-24.11 But let us note how, along with the nominal extension of constitutional freedom, there has been going on actual diminution of it. There is first the fact that the legislative functions of Parliament have been decreasing while the Ministry has been usurping them. Important measures are not now brought forward and carried by private members, but appeal is made to the government to take them up: the making of laws is gradually lapsing into the hands of the executive. And then within the executive itself the tendency is towards placing power in fewer hands. Just as in past times the Cabinet grew out of the Privy Council by a process of restriction, so now a smaller group of ministers is coming to exercise some of the functions of the whole group. Add to which we have subordinate executive bodies, like the Home Office, the Board of Trade, the Board of Education, and the Local Government Board, to which there have been deputed the powers both of making certain kinds of laws and enforcing them: government by administrative order. In like manner by taking for government-purposes more and more of the time which was once available for private members; by the cutting down of debates by the closure; and now by requiring the vote for an entire department to be passed en bloc, without criticism of details; we are shown that while extension of the franchise has been seeming to increase the liberties of citizens, their liberties have been decreased by restricting the spheres of action of their representatives. All these are stages in that concentration of power which is the concomitant of Imperialism.*. And how this tendency works out where militancy becomes active, we are shown by the measures taken in South Africa – the proclamation of martial law by a governor, who thereby becomes in so far a despot, and the temporary suspension of constitutional government: a suspension which many so-called loyalists would make complete.
FC-24.12 Passing by this, however, let us note the extent to which the citizen is the servant of the community in disguised ways. Certain ancient usages will best make this clear. During times when complete slavery was mingled with serfdom, the serf, tied to his plot, rendered to his lord or seigneur many dues and services. These services, or corvées, varied, according to the period and the place, from one day’s labour to six days’ labour in the week – from partial slavery to complete slavery. Labours and exactions of these kinds were most of them in course of time commuted for money: the equivalence between so much tax paid to the lord and so much work done for him, being thus distinctly recognized. Now in so far as the burden is concerned, it comes to the same thing if for the feudal lord we substitute the central government, and for local money-payments we substitute general taxes. The essential question for the citizen is what part of his work goes to the power which rules over him, and what part remains available for satisfying his own wants. Labour demanded by the State is just as much corvée to the State as labour demanded by the feudal lord was corvée to him, though it may not be called so, and though it may be given in money instead of in kind; and to the extent of this corvée each citizen is a serf to the community. Some five years ago M. Guyot [Online editor’s note: Yves Guyot, of the French Liberal School. – RTL] calculated that in France, the civil and military expenditure absorbs some 30 per cent. of the national produce, or, in other words, that 90 days annually of the average citizen’s labour is given to the State under compulsion.
FC-24.13 Though to a smaller extent, what holds in France holds here. Not forgetting the heavy burden of State-corvées which the Imperialism of past days bequeathed to us – the 150 millions of debt incurred for the American war and the 50 millions we took over with the East India Company’s possessions, the interest on both of which entails on citizens extra labour annually, let us limit ourselves to the burdens Imperialism now commits us to. From a statistical authority second to none, I learn that 100 millions of annual expenditure requires from the average citizen the labour of one day in every seventeen, that is to say, nearly eighteen days in the year. As the present permanent expenditure on army and navy plus the interest on the debt recently contracted amounts to about 76 millions, it results that 13½ days’ labour per annum is thus imposed on the average citizen as corvée. And then there comes the £153,000,000 spent, and to be spent, on the south African and Chinese wars, to which may be added, for all subsequent costs of pensions, repairs, compensations, and re-instatements, a sum which will raise the total to more than £200,000,000. What is the taxation which direct expenditure and interest on loans will entail, the reader may calculate. He has before him the data for an estimate of the extra number of days annually, during which Imperialism will require him to work for the Government – extra number, I say, because to meet the ordinary State-expenditure, there must always be a large number of days spent by him as a State-labourer. Doubtless one who is satisfied by names instead of things, as the Romans were, will think this statement absurd; but he who understands by freedom the ability to use his powers for his own ends, with no greater hindrance than is implied by the like ability of each other citizen, will see that in whatever disguised ways he is obliged to use his powers for State-purposes, he is to that extent a serf of the State; and that as fast as our growing Imperialism augments the amount of such compulsory service, he is to that extent more and more a serf of the State.
FC-24.14 And then beyond the roundabout services given by the citizen under the form of direct taxes and under the form of indirect taxes, severally equivalent to so many days’ work that would else have elevated the lives of himself and his belongings, there will presently come the actual or potential service as a soldier, demanded by the State to carry out an imperialist policy – a service which, as those in South Africa can tell us, often inflicts under the guise of fine names a slavery harder than that which the negro bears, with the added risk of death.
FC-24.15 Even were it possible to bring home to men the extent to which their lives are, and presently will be still more, subordinated to State-requirements, so as to leave them less and less owned by themselves, little effect would be produced. So long as the passion for mastery overrides all others the slavery that goes along with Imperialism will be tolerated. Among men who do not pride themselves on the possession of purely human traits, but on the possession of traits which they have in common withy brutes, and in whose mouths “bull-dog courage” is equivalent to manhood – among people who take their point of honour from the prize-ring, in which the combatant submits to pain, injury, and risk of death, in the determination to prove himself “the better man,” no deterrent considerations like the above will have any weight. So long as they continue to conquer other peoples and to hold them in subjection, they will readily merge their personal liberties in the power of the State, and hereafter as heretofore accept the slavery that goes along with Imperialism.

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FC-24.n1.1 * Even while I have the proof in my hands there come the new rules for procedure, further diminishing the freedom of members.

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