Saturday, March 07, 2015

How the bastards, er, British looted India. And how that model to loot continues

Three mornings ago, I read William Dalrymple's essay and tweeted about it.  Thanks to the author re-tweeting it, my original note reached thousands more, as this screenshot of the analytics shows:

Dalrymple's essay has a catchy, wonderful beginning:
One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: “loot”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late 18th century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain. 
Who can resist reading the essay after such a sampler, right?  Plus, of course, to somebody like me who continues to hold a huge grudge against the colonizers, especially those who resisted granting freedom even to the point of killing millions, Dalrymple's essay was awesome.

Dalrymple makes an important point:
We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath – [Robert] Clive.
Unregulated private corporation + an unstable sociopath = utter destruction of a rich culture thousands of miles away!

Caption at the source:
The Mughal emperor Shah Alam hands a scroll to Robert Clive, the governor of Bengal,
which transferred tax collecting rights in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Company

A powerful moment in history--until then, the route to plundering a country, killing people, was via any royal madness.  The king decided to wage wars and conquer lands.  With the East India Company, a corporation led the way!

Through the essay, Dalrymple not only provides rich details of how India was looted (not that this is news; graduate schooling was where I learnt a lot about this) and also reminds us why studying history is important:
In many ways the EIC [East India Company] was a model of corporate efficiency: 100 years into its history, it had only 35 permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations – whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google – they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company. Yet if history shows anything, it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, it will use all the resources in its power to resist.
My only problem with that formulation: notice that he, too, lists Walmart, the oil corporations, and the "usual suspects," but not Apple.  Why does everybody give Apple a free pass?  Am I the one who is messed up then?
Bengal’s wealth rapidly drained into Britain, while its prosperous weavers and artisans were coerced “like so many slaves” by their new masters, and its markets flooded with British products. A proportion of the loot of Bengal went directly into Clive’s pocket. He returned to Britain with a personal fortune – then valued at £234,000 – that made him the richest self-made man in Europe.
History is full of assholes like Robert Clive.  BTW, until I read this essay, I had no idea about how Clive's life ended, which Dalrymple writes about:
Clive, hounded by envious parliamentary colleagues and widely reviled for corruption, committed suicide in 1774 by slitting his own throat with a paperknife some months before the canvas was completed. He was buried in secret, on a frosty November night, in an unmarked vault in the Shropshire village of Morton Say. Many years ago, workmen digging up the parquet floor came across Clive’s bones, and after some discussion it was decided to quietly put them to rest again where they lay. Here they remain, marked today by a small, discreet wall plaque inscribed: “PRIMUS IN INDIS.”
A fitting end, indeed!

Dalrymple reminds us about the shady and atrocious relationship between this first multinational corporation and the state:
It seemed impossible that a single London corporation, however ruthless and aggressive, could have conquered an empire that was so magnificently strong, so confident in its own strength and brilliance and effortless sense of beauty.
Historians propose many reasons: the fracturing of Mughal India into tiny, competing states; the military edge that the industrial revolution had given the European powers. But perhaps most crucial was the support that the East India Company enjoyed from the British parliament. The relationship between them grew steadily more symbiotic throughout the 18th century. Returned nabobs like Clive used their wealth to buy both MPs and parliamentary seats – the famous Rotten Boroughs. In turn, parliament backed the company with state power: the ships and soldiers that were needed when the French and British East India Companies trained their guns on each other.
If you thought those days, years, have ended, well, think again:
In September, the governor of India’s central bank, Raghuram Rajan, made a speech in Mumbai expressing his anxieties about corporate money eroding the integrity of parliament: “Even as our democracy and our economy have become more vibrant,” he said, “an important issue in the recent election was whether we had substituted the crony socialism of the past with crony capitalism, where the rich and the influential are alleged to have received land, natural resources and spectrum in return for payoffs to venal politicians. By killing transparency and competition, crony capitalism is harmful to free enterprise, and economic growth. And by substituting special interests for the public interest, it is harmful to democratic expression.”
So, the closing lines, Dalrymple?
[The] East India Company – the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok – was the ultimate model for many of today’s joint-stock corporations. The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out. The East India Company remains history’s most terrifying warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state. Three hundred and fifteen years after its founding, its story has never been more current.
Screwed we are! :(


Mike Hoth said...

The trouble with humans is that we hold certain characteristics on pedestals with no concern for what those pedestals sit atop. We want wealth, we want political power, and we want followers. Doesn't matter how we get there.

This is the perfect storm for anybody who is willing and capable of discarding their humanity, even if only in certain situations. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both worked people to the point of death or suicide in their meteoric rise to the top, and the Japanese economy is built on the 80-hour work week.

It's impossible to stop these abuses when they get results so often. We must come to grips with the fact that rich people aren't happy and neither are high-end politicians. Success is something that cannot be bought.

Sriram Khé said...

Well ... one big difference between people voluntarily working for 8o hours a week in their high paying jobs, versus MNCs using their economic and political powers to screw up a poorer country (and, partly, rich countries too.) Thankfully, no MNC has yet to come anywhere near the phenomenal power that the East India Company had to mess up a land and its peoples thousands of miles away from its home base. But, hey, that day is not too far away ;)

But, yes, the maniacal attraction to wealth, power, ... we humans are messed up, to say the least!

Ramesh said...

I am not going to let you get away with that.

Yes, the linkage between wealth and power has always been intense. In the past wealth came through hereditary or agrarian ways. It was used to buy power. Now its corporations and business that are the way to wealth.

The East India Company was certainly a massive villain. All that is fine. Even in recent history, some corporations have created big mayhem in Africa. But that is in the past. Today's corporations are strictly in the realm of making money and do far more good in the countries they operate in. They certainly do not "loot".

But then to use this model and foretell Armageddon now is simply unacceptable. Sure corporations lobby and protect their interests by buying influence. So does every other power group. Do you think unions, or gun advocates, or Greenpeace for that matter, do any less.

And why bash multinationals (I am amazed that it has become a four letter word). Raghuram Rajan wasn't referring to foreign companies. He was referring to the Ambanis and the like.

Stop bashing corporates. Or if you have to do that, at least be even with crediting them for the massive improvement in our economic well being.

Sriram Khé said...

Not so fast, Ramesh.

In the post, I make this clear: "atrocious relationship between this first multinational corporation and the state." Dalrymple notes that even the punching bags of today--Walmart or ExxonMobile--cannot come anywhere close to how powerful that first MNC was. So, yes, of course, no MNC can dream to be another EIC.

Dalrynple writes:
"The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out."
Hey, that never happens, right? "Too big to fail" is only fiction, right? Or, did those Wall Street firms have standing armies and did they threaten to invade Fort Knox?

The crony capitalism that Rajan commented about is nothing but the path that was paved by EIC's nexus between business and state. And, hello, aren't Ambanis enterprises multinational corporations? If Rajan's comments were directed at the likes of the Ambanis, ahem, aren't the crony capitalists MNCs too?

I bash the MNCs when I have to. In other posts, when I have to bash unions, I do. You feel excited when I bash unions, when I beat up on Arundati Roy, when I beat up on single-cause nonprofits.