The age of European colonialism seems a long time ago. Yet, sixty-seventy years is less even than an average human life-span. Often, scholars and analysts from post-colonial nations are accused of laying too much stress on the continuing effects of the European dominance of the world. At times such criticism is justified. But the overarching argument cannot be denied. Not only are the uncountable devastations of the Imperial Age still with us, many problems of today trace directly from the time. Among them is the legacy of artificially constructed borders and boundaries which along with the European idea of the nation-state has not only left historical regions permanent divided, but also left them in states of permanent war. But, of course, the most important question is whether the responsibility of the many crises of today can be placed with successors of those who created them? Or, are Europeans today responsible for the sins of their fathers? Especially, when in many cases these ‘fathers’ aren’t really the predecessors of toady’s Europeans. Many parts of Europe were after all oppressed by their own Empires and structures of domination, including the class system and racialism.
My direct answer to this is that while the Europeans of today cannot be held responsible for the ‘sins of their fathers’, the maximum responsibility of providing solutions lies with them. Why is that? Two reasons. First, Europe, being the ‘richest’ region in the world is most capable of addressing the fundamental problem that faces humanity today – the problem of scarcity, of access to resources, services and security. Now, that the ‘rich’ owe something to the poor, is human morality 101. It is only the range and degree that is the subject of debate. Second, Europe’s prosperity today is the legacy of the era of its dominance of the world. This is, of course, a very controversial issue, but I find it hard to believe any substantial argument could fundamentally deny that the economics of empire were inconsequential to European ‘progress’.
Responsibility is owed, then, not for the crimes of the past, but because the trajectory from that past to today’s future has made not just Europe but the West as a whole, relatively, more prosperous than it would have otherwise been. Now, how do I substantiate this claim. Why wouldn’t the West have been equally prosperous without colonialism? It could have been, but the relative prosperity that the West enjoys over the rest of the world would not have been the same, of the same degree. That is, the West could have been as prosperous as it is now, but the rest of the world would not have been as poor. This applies at least to the post-colonial world. Now, numbers such as how the Europe had about 5% share of global production before the heights of colonial imperialism and 80% towards its end, might throw some light on the argument, but they are too one-dimensional. Think about the substantive loss to the world. The argument is often made that white, Europeans are responsible for most of the world’s inventions and discoveries. These achievements are great and admirable in their own right. But one must put them in context. White, European men, were placed at the top of a super-structure which allowed them to pursue, for want of a better term, higher knowledge. And the rapidly advancing public services, in education especially, continuously kept increasing the pool of people capable of contributing to these pursuits. In the colonised world, there never were such advancements. At the end of colonialism in India, the literacy rate was just over 15% while England’s was over 90%! In sheer numbers, think of the millions of potential Indian scientists lost to the world by the neglect of the British Indian regime’s investment in education in India. If we wonder why we don’t have flying cars and jetpacks in the 21st century, it is because we never had 90% of the scientists working on inventing them.
But returning to the core of the argument. Europe owes a responsibility to the world, not for the sins of the past, but because it has received a proportionately much larger share of its fruits. This is true for the whole of the West, the Global North, the developed world, call it what you may.
Now, there is a political argument against this. It is national governments which are responsible for national development. And within nations, it is the rich who must be willing to distribute their wealth for the development of the poor. This is a completely valid argument. Its justification, however, is exactly the same as the one I’ve discussed above. National redistribution of wealth is important because we, the privileged, enjoy the fruits of the social positions of our ancestors of past. So, redistribution of wealth within national societies must always be the goal of all governments that wish to create fair, prosperous societies. But when one uses this argument to deny the responsibility of a global re-distribution of wealth, it becomes not only self contradictory but also hypocritical. We cannot have fair national societies embedded within an unfair global society.
There is, however, another reason. The legacies of the past cast their shadows on today. They will continue to haunt us until we don’t do something, now. To conquer the stars, one of my teachers used to say, one must first have conquered earth. What is conquest, though? Conquest means control. Are we in control of our world? Our world is more unstable than ever. Not merely because the dangers we face today are more deadly than ever in the past, but because we have more to lose than ever before. We stand at the cusp of a technological leap, when we not just hypothetically but substantially are on the verge of becoming a solar system scale species, from a planetary scale one. But we should not feel secure behind the narrow domestic walls of our developed countries, our gated communities, or own little worlds. Problems which seem to be occurring far away, on our TV screens, can become very, very real. take the case of the refugee crisis. It is not that the refugees are the problem, it is our inaction in stabilizing conditions in their homes that is. All countries will face the crises of the future together. Borders and boundaries are artificial, not just in word, but also in deed.
We need to look beyond, to new world, that makes such useless political technology irrelevant. One must recall Captain James T. Kirk’s quotation of the writer who is yet to be born – ‘Let me help’ are three words in the universe. And the three worst words – ‘I don’t care’.