Imperialism and Domestic Society

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Laura Tabili

A persistent feature of the historiography of Europe has been a bifurcation between European histories and identities and imperial ones. Yet in fact imperialism has been intrinsic to European expansion, European identity, and European history.


Scholars have traced the origins of European imperialism at least as far back as the Middle Ages. Through the expansion of Latin Christendom, doubling European territory between 950 and 1350, Europe became "a colonizing society and the product of one" (Bartlett, p. 314). Frankish, Germanic, and English territorial conquests secured institutional hegemony over a periphery then as now encompassing the Celtic lands, the Baltic and Scandinavia, eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean. Institutional mechanisms and ideological predispositions that prefigured later imperialisms took shape on these European frontiers through the often violent and seldom complete imposition of cultural, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and legal hierarchies, patriarchy and primogeniture, social stratification, militarization, feudalism and tributary agriculture, urbanization, standardized educational and religious practice, and, with the Cistercian monastic order, international organization. European identity itself was constructed through these processes, among them the abortive Crusades, based not on cultural homogeneity or affinities but imposed through conquest and terror. The Catholic Church participated in these colonizing processes, its universalistic professions masking territorial and ethnic agendas. Thus European societies were readied, institutionally and culturally, for the period of exploration and colonization beyond Europe that began in the fifteenth century.

Ideological justification for this new expansion was provided by Orientalism, the dialectical unity of ideas and institutionally reinforced practices subordinating the colonized and depicting them as inferior to and polar opposites of Europeans. In European literary artifacts from the Renaissance onward, colonized "Others" were viewed and constructed so as to maintain the illusion of European superiority. Even anti-Semitism toward European Jews has been interpreted as the projection inward of imperialistic impulses first directed outward in the form of the Crusades. The demonization of Islam, a product of binary thinking that may be uniquely European, thus became the "strange secret sharer" (Ballard, p. 27) of European anti-Semitism. Anti-Islamic Orientalism helped to define European identity by defining what Europe was not. "The Orient" itself was arguably a construction of the Western imagination, its deficiencies demanding political and economic domination. It originated and was sustained, therefore, in Europe rather than in the colonized world.

Continuities from the Crusades through the Christian reconquest of Spain to European overseas exploration suggest that the mechanisms and practices of colonization, including aggression and exploitation, were intrinsic to European social formation and economic and political development. It follows that imperialism was inherent in domestic societies even before overseas colonization, an artifact of European patterns rather than of these new worlds. Yet imperialism assumed new forms in response to indigenous resistance. The European predisposition was to frame human attributes and cultural processes in terms of dichotomies and hierarchies, thereby justifying relations of dominance and subordination. This predisposition then interacted with colonizing processes: colonial racial discourses, for example, were dialectically and mutually constitutive of European class and gendered discourses. Empire and colonization gave Europeans a vocabulary in which to express and legitimize domestic class and gender relations. Dichotomies such as home/empire, colonizer/colonized, white/black, familiar/foreign, and civilized/savage were explicitly developed out of the colonial experience. They helped to shape and were in turn shaped by other dichotomies that structured ruling class males' consciousness and actions, including man/woman, lady/woman, middle class/working class, control/chaos, purity/pollution, clean/dirty, culture/nature, intellect/emotion, rationality/sensuality, self/Other, and subject/object. These in turn were assigned unequal value as good/evil, superiority/inferiority (Davidoff, 1979).

European aristocratic notions of blood infused developing colonial definitions of racial hierarchy and practices of racial exclusion with overtones of rank, status, and class. These in turn were reimported to Europe. Representations of the colonized mirrored, as they helped to reinforce and justify, European cultural processes and social hierarchies such as gender and class. In concrete terms, many attitudes and practices developed in the colonial setting were reimported to European societies and applied to socially marginal populations. Poor people and their neighborhoods, for example the East End of London, were portrayed and treated as an unruly and primitive "dark continent," in need of pacification and even "colonization," in the words of Judith Walkowitz (p. 194). "Urban explorers" or flaneurs satisfied their taste for the exotic and prurient with forays into working class neighborhoods. Certain categories of domestic populations were "racialized"—portrayed as inferior based on apparent physical attributes. That prostitutes, for example, were born to their profession rather than driven to it by poverty was allegedly detectable in overdeveloped secondary sex characteristics such as large buttocks. Dirt, darkness, degradation, physicality, sexuality, and immorality were multiply and symbolically conflated to portray poor people, like colonized people, as morally wayward and in need of discipline and uplift. Homeless or unsupervised children were called "street Arabs" in apparent reference to their peripatetic existence. On the other hand, lower class as well as colonized men were "feminized"—portrayed as less than men to justify ruling class measures of coercion and control. Intensified social class stratification in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, for example, coincided with enhanced racialization of social inequalities in British colonies. In the Darwinian discourses of the end of the century, inequalities were viewed through the lens of biology and nature so as to justify them.

Europeans projected a variety of fears and fantasies onto disparate colonized Others that originated in their own minds, rather than any place in the colonized world. Orientalists purveyed spurious privileged "knowledge" of the colonized to bolster their cultural authority while justifying colonial rule. Nineteenth-century European literature reproduced as it simultaneously enlisted popular collaboration in what Edward Said called "paternalistic arrogance" toward colonized people. Although this focus on empire at home provides a valuable perspective, it can degenerate into a sort of historiographical navel-gazing, enabling scholars of Europe to continue their longstanding neglect of colonized people and overseas empires while claiming to support the more challenging historiographical task of integrating empire back into the history of the metropole.


Overseas colonization and colonized people's agency and resistance had dramatic effects on European societies. Contacts with the world beyond Europe not only reproduced imperialist patterns of aggression, subordination, and exploitation but introduced Europeans to new and disturbing ideas and practices. The encounter with the Americas helped to destabilize the hegemony and credibility of the Christian church, indeed of the European worldview, speeding secularization by introducing knowledge unforeseen in biblical or classical texts. The European way of life was transformed and its burgeoning population simultaneously sustained and menaced by the introduction of new foods such as maize, tomatoes, squashes, tapioca, peanuts, and especially cacao and potatoes; new crops such as tobacco and rubber; new animals such as llamas, buffalo, jaguars, and other beasts real and mythical; and new diseases such as syphilis.

The inflow of New World bullion produced the massive European inflation and resultant economic and social dislocations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Europe's commercial bourgeoisie gained wealth and power at the expense of the aristocracy, and a stronger bargaining position globally: Mexican silver offered European merchants something the Chinese would accept in exchange for their coveted silks and porcelain. Indigo, annatto, and fustic supplied the textile industries until the development of aniline dyes in the late nineteenth century, and sisal supplied the maritime industries sustaining northwest Europe's global power. The related evolution of a global capitalist system with Europe at its financial and geographical core had profound effects on Europe as well as on the non-European world.

By the eighteenth century, colonial products such as furs and sugar warmed the backs and graced the tables of the well-to-do, becoming symbols of privilege and social distance. Ginger, allspice, nutmeg, mace, coffee, chocolate, sugar, rum, arrowroot, and sago became staples of the middle-class larder. Elite women's participation in shaping demand for colonial products such as Indian cotton, coffee and tea from Asia and South America, Caribbean sugar, Chinese and Japanese porcelain and lacquer goods, and objects made from exotic woods implicated them in projects of empire and of slavery.

European identities themselves were forged in the process of overseas colonization: Scottish merchants, for example, came in the colonial context to recognize the profit to be derived from being British. The Enlightened superiority of eighteenth-century Europe was constructed not only in relation to the imputed barbarism of the Middle Ages but also to the innocence of the Amerindian "noble savage" and the alleged brutishness of the African.


The slave trade that supplied labor to the New World colonies contributed in many ways to Europe's social transformations. Enslaved Africans, replaced after 1834 by indentured or otherwise coerced colonized workers, provided the cheap labor that brought erstwhile luxuries such as sugar, tea, coffee, and tobacco within reach of middle-class consumers. Slaves produced the cheap raw materials such as cotton that fueled the industrial system by keeping its products affordable and its profits high. West African slave traders accounted for a high proportion of the demand for early British industrial goods such as textiles—"shirts for Black men" (Williams, p. 133)—and for iron ingots, used as currency. Colonies were virtually captive markets for European and colonial products, including slaves themselves.

Profits from this "triangular trade" flowed mainly to Holland, France, and Britain, contributing to the rapid capital formation that made them commercial and industrial leaders. Wealth derived from slavery and colonialism financed infrastructure such as roads, canals, factories, and warehouses throughout Europe. In Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Eric Williams showed how slave trade profits were used in Britain to capitalize James Watt's steam engine, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway, Britain's metallurgical industries, the Welsh slate industry, numerous banks, notably Barclay's, and the marine insurer Lloyd's of London. Thus industry and empire went hand in hand. Yet deep involvement in the trade in human beings shook Enlightenment thinkers' confidence in the superiority and rationality through which they distinguished their societies from those of the past or of the non-European world.

British high politics were preoccupied with slavery and emancipation for decades during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wealthy Caribbean planters, "the West India interest," purchased parliamentary seats, further threatening and displacing the landed aristocracy. One of these, the owner of plantations in Guiana, was the father of William Gladstone, Liberal prime minister in the Victorian era. Gladstone's maiden speech was in defense of slavery. On the other hand, antislavery was a defining issue in reform, Chartist, and socialist politics in Britain as well as in French republican and revolutionary movements.

Africans and other colonized people were not found only in the colonies, however; many were found in European metropoles and were commonly depicted in the works of such artists as William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds. Their widespread appearance in domestic painting of the period suggests the prevalence of black house servants and slaves in eighteenth-century western European societies, and estimates place between ten thousand and thirty thousand in London alone. In the nineteenth century an Indian ayah or nanny became an upper-class status symbol. Some slaves or former slaves, such as Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, and Francis Barber, became prominent in public life as spokesmen for emancipation. Like nineteenth-century elite travelers from India, such as Pandita Ramabai, Cornelia Sorabji, and Behramji Malabari, they brought empire home, embodied in their persons, while contributing dissenting voices to metropolitan conversations about empire.


The bulk of scholarship on the domestic effects of imperialism has concerned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the period climaxing in the "new imperialism." Much of the literature focuses on Britain, the most powerful empire of the industrial period. The focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries may be a result of the preponderance of scholars working in the modern period. Until 1953, when Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher traced the continuities between "old" and "new" imperialism, scholars such as Joseph Schumpeter viewed the apparent reemergence of imperialism in the 1880s as an alarming atavism from Europe's barbaric past. Framed as a problem demanding explanation, it thus generated a substantial literature. This "new imperialism" was so called because it followed an apparent hiatus in the formal acquisition of overseas possessions. It was an effect of renewed competition among European powers, as continental industrial systems expanded to challenge Britain. That the hiatus was more apparent than real was exposed by Robinson and Gallagher, who found that British "free trade imperialism" involved exerting control "informally if possible"—that is, in the absence of competition, as was the case in the period between the "old" and "new" imperialism—but "formally if necessary" (p. 13).

John Hobson and Vladimir Ilich Lenin put imperialism at the center of their critiques of industrial societies at home. Although they have been much maligned, it was they who initiated the discussion of the dialectical relationship between overseas expansion and domestic economic, political, social, and cultural relations. Hobson argued that imperialism was an irrational strategy that stood in the way of domestic social reform. Lenin, conversely, saw imperialism as a rational strategy for a system that was not reformable but inexorably doomed. In 1916, in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin argued that the monopoly stage of capitalism, which corresponded with and stimulated the new imperialism, had undermined the allegedly progressive characteristics of industrial capitalism, such as individual ownership, independent, autonomous producers, consumer choice, and the decentralization of power: "private property based on the labour of the small proprietor, free competition, democracy, i.e., all the catchwords with which the capitalists and their press deceive the workers and the peasants—are things of the past" (Lenin, 1939, p. 10). The late nineteenth-century renewal of aggressive overseas territorial expansion corresponded to, because it flowed from, the restoration of domestic economic and political oligarchy. Both Lenin and Hobson agreed that the profit-making agendas of finance capital drove overseas expansion to the detriment of the European majority, both middle and working class. As Hobson put it in 1902 in his Imperialism: A Study "While the manufacturing and trading classes make little out of their new markets, paying . . . more in taxation than they get out of them in trade, it is quite otherwise with the investor" (p. 53). Hobson denounced these rentier elements for using "public policy, the public purse, and the public force to extend the field of their private investments" (Hobson, 1965, p. 53).

Subsequent investigation seems to support these conclusions. Although efforts to calibrate precisely the rhythms of "old" and "new" imperialism to the "phases" of industrial capitalism failed, the connection of domestic economic and political agendas with imperial expansion has endured. Making much of evidence that British imperialism "did not pay" overall, extensive economic and statistical analysis reinforces the more damning conclusion: as Hobson argued in 1902, the imperial system was a vast money-laundering mechanism lining the pockets of private investors at public expense, transferring wealth from middle-class taxpayers to the superrich, thus enhancing class disparities and entrenching a financial oligarchy.

This conclusion is consistent with a broader revision minimizing industrialization's destabilization of British class stratification. Scholars have further argued that while the self-made upwardly mobile captains of British industry may have benefitted from imperialism, old and new, they did not control it. Imperial expansion was directed by an entirely different social group, a cultural, political, and financial oligarchy of "gentlemanly capitalists," who maintained their control over the empire from 1688 through 1945. Personal contacts and information exchanges among networks of such men, formed in the public schools and Oxford and Cambridge and continued via London club life, sustained the hegemony of a limited ruling-class fragment over several generations of dramatic political, economic, and social change.

The important shift in British domestic politics, and thus overseas expansion, was therefore not from the dominance of the landed aristocracy to the industrial bourgeoisie in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, but from one group of gentlemanly capitalists, the commercially progressive landed interest, to another: the financiers in the City of London. Financial and by extension political power resided not with the moneygrubbing merchants and factory owners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but with this infinitely adaptable upper-class stratum. Whoever was "on top" politically—whether the landed aristocracy or public school-educated bankers—had the power to influence both politics and the investment of national wealth. Thus imperial expansion was "rational" for those who possessed the wherewithal to influence Parliament and stood to gain financially from it.

This analysis seeks to detach industry from empire in British historiography, arguing for continuity rather than abrupt change in British economic development, in political institutions, and in ongoing processes of overseas expansion. Formal and informal imperialisms appear as merely pragmatic responses to new global demands rather than the outcomes of dramatic shifts in ideology or changes in economic structure or political culture. The continuity argument is consistent with revisions of the Whiggish or progressive view of the industrial bourgeoisie, which envisions a more complete, uniquely British, transformation of social structure. It also contests the Marxian view of the industrial bourgeoisie as the gravediggers of feudalism, and of industrialization as the primary motor of modern history.

Yet this interpretation, stressing persistence over change in the identity of a flexible, pragmatic imperialist class, does not challenge the view that overseas expansion was an extension of domestic politics and economic arrangements. In fact the continuity argument corroborates other scholars' emphasis on continuities between the personnel and practices of informal and formal imperialism, old and new imperialism, protection versus free trade, commerce versus industry, and home versus empire. It also deflates assumptions about British exceptionalism relative to European class systems, industrialization processes, and imperialist projects—the view that British precocity stemmed from an early and decisive bourgeois triumph. While perhaps slighting the degree of upheaval industrialization inflicted on the lower end of the social formation, this interpretation also appears to corroborate the view that empire's impact on domestic populations was deleterious, draining wealth away to pay for colonial infrastructures from which a handful of financial insiders reaped massive profits. It was these elites, operating as a manipulative oligarchy outside of popular control or awareness, who had the political and economic wherewithal to affect outcomes. A historiography that emphasizes the role of the oligarchy—whatever "attitudes" might have been prevalent at the time—asserts a conceptual and perceptual chasm between colonies and metropoles marked by popular indifference and ignorance toward empire. It also absolves metropolitan populations from responsibility for imperialist abuses.

Such an explanation challenges the fundamental premises undergirding social history: the emphasis on class struggle as the engine of history; on the efficacy of mass action, resistance, and agency "from the bottom up"; and on popular participation as a precondition for historical change. Social historians' contribution to the analysis of empire at home has been to explore how metropolitan populations as well as colonized people participated in, negotiated, and contested imperial projects, albeit on varying terms and with competing agendas. This is a necessary corrective both to the longstanding historiographical compartmentalization between empire and metropole, and to the stress in later scholarship on imperialism as a topdown imposition on credulous or passively receptive domestic populations.


Scholars seem to agree that the burdens and benefits of empire were unequally distributed among metropolitan populations according to class, gender, region, culture, and other social dynamics. Middle-class consumers appear to have benefited more than the poor from overseas colonization. Middle-class women created demand for colonial products, thus integrating colonial artifacts and cultural practices into metropolitan societies. European matrons in India spurned colonial foods and home furnishings, but once back in Europe they imported these goods, presenting them as gifts and creating demand for them. Evidence from cookbooks, advice columns, newspaper articles, and ladies' magazines indicates that Kashmir shawls valued at up to a hundred pounds and Rampore (Rampur) chuddars (a type of shawl) were highly prized status symbols among the well-to-do ladies of early nineteenth-century Britain. These fashion leaders stimulated upper-middle-class demand for affordable domestic imitations from Paisley, Norwich, Edinburgh, and Lyon, establishing shawls as women's wardrobe staples for the balance of the century. Indian shawls and dresses, lushly draping muslins and silks, cloaks, scarves, peacock feathers, jewelry, and artifacts such as carved wood and ivory figured in trousseaux and inheritances. They embodied a form of capital that a returning memsahib or a soldier's widow could barter for necessities in the metropole. Similarly, returnees from the colonies introduced Indian cuisine into the drab British diet, importing and creating demand for turmeric and curry powders and proffering recipes for curries, kedgeree, mulligatawny soup, dal, chapatis, and pickles. In the absence of mangoes, a hybrid emerged—gooseberry chutney.

In contrast, European working classes survived in spite of rather than because of the impact of empire at home. By the late nineteenth century, the prevalence of colonial products such as tea and sugar, cheap jams and treacle in the northern European working-class diet linked even the poorest to the colonized world, to the detriment of nutritional standards and the despair of their social "betters."Sidney Mintz has argued that, although considered temperance beverages, colonial drug foods or food substitutes such as heavily sugared tea, coffee, and cocoa—like tobacco, another colonial product—served sinister purposes: as convenience foods freeing housewives for industrial labor; to "provide a respite from reality, and deaden hunger pangs" of workers, who might imbibe the illusion that "one could become different by consuming differently" (Mintz, 1985, pp. 186, 185). As John Burnett observes, "a cup of tea converted a cold meal into something like a hot one, and gave comfort and cheer besides" (Mintz, 1985, p. 129). Arguably, refined cane sugar, a colonial product and what Mintz calls "an artifact of intraclass struggles for profit," became and remains a symbol of quintessentially European modernity. (Mintz, 1985, p. 186). Increases in these colonial products coincided with a decline in consumption of dairy products and other fresh foods. Deterioration in the stature and general health of populations introduced to these products in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries echoes the physical deterioration that accompanied the shift toward cereals in agriculture, and thus diet, on the medieval frontier.


The rubric of social imperialism has described a number of competing interpretations, agendas, and practices. The advent of social imperialism was originally understood as the moment in the late nineteenth century when socialists and the working-class movement became collaborators in imperialism. Its origin has been linked to the depression of the 1870s and 1880s and efforts by governments to recuperate economic losses while simultaneously frustrating socialist and labor agitation. Advocates of imperialism such as Jules Ferry and Joseph Chamberlain justified it by arguing that the fruits of empire would subsidize social reform, remedy the stagnation and instability of late-nineteenth-century European economies, and ameliorate the plight of the poor—"the cry of our industrial population," in Ferry's words—by affording steady employment producing goods for captive colonial markets. Hobson debunked such arguments: overseas investment, whether in formal colonies or informal spheres of influence, he argued, drained resources from European domestic economies. More cynical politicians such as Otto von Bismarck merely invoked imperial "crisis ideology," using overseas military adventures and a focus on external enemies to divert popular attention from the deficiencies of domestic political and economic arrangements. Privileging the pursuit of empire enabled the German state to postpone the democratization of political power and evade redistribution of wealth.

Perhaps because, unlike Britain, France lacked a substantial informal empire in the mid-nineteeth century, French imperial gains in the "scramble for Africa" late in the century did succeed in generating markets and profits unavailable in the domestic economy. This success afforded France economic parity with Germany, the Ottomans, and Russia. But in the course of the twentieth century the importance of these economic resources diminished.


Scholars continue to debate the degree to which various social groups supported or opposed imperialism. The culture of imperialism, many have argued, was not only ethnocentric and racist but narrowly class-based in origin and profoundly gendered and misogynist. The construction of the Manichaean or polar dichotomy undergirding imperialist and Orientalist discourses involved fabricating historical, cultural, and national identities for hegemonic ends. Almost invariably, the effort by elites to retain power and influence in changing structural contexts entailed representing themselves as arbiters of imagined or invented collective interests. All of this suggests that European populations' alleged innocence of participation in empire-building is a myth, for they were continually exposed to imperialist propaganda.

Yet scholars have differed as to the effectiveness of state or ruling-class strategies to enlist popular support for imperialism. Abundant artifactual and documentary evidence has been produced to illustrate employers', social workers', and military men's propagandistic efforts to recruit lower-class people into support for empire, jingoism, and other nationalist projects, especially through implicit promises of economic reform and political participation. Artifacts from schoolbooks to cigarette cards, biscuit tins, and boys' magazines, as well as performances in music halls, on radio, in cinemas and via imperial exhibitions, show that popular culture was saturated with triumphalist images of empire and its benefits to colonizers and colonized alike. Jam pots and tea packets adorned with fantasies of the tropics—palm trees, elephants, and odalisques—allegedly constructed popular perceptions along Orientalist lines.

Literary and cultural artifacts of empire articulated ideals of "imperial masculinity"; effeminacy was seen as a danger to empire, and women were held responsible for imperial decline and dissolution. Public schoolmasters promoted a shrill ruling-class ideology in which "warrior patriots" were encouraged to heroic physical sacrifice on behalf of a nation invariably feminized in popular song and verse as Britannia, or "she." The Boy Scouts mobilized the lower middle class for imperialism in a specifically masculine form. There was nothing covert about the link between scouting and Edwardian imperialism: they were both explicitly promoted as vehicles of class conciliation, patriotism, citizenship, and militarism, vehicles that encouraged nonruling groups to identify with the imperial state.

Feminist scholars were among the first to address metropolitan women's involvement and culpability in imperial projects. British "feminist Orientalists" have been criticized for participating in and reproducing imperialist discourses and practices as a means of challenging gender hierarchies within their own class. In striving for equal participation with European men, European women reproduced class and racial hierarchies by representing themselves as spokes-women for allegedly downtrodden indigenous or colonized women, perpetuating the women's marginalization, silencing, and erasure, while at the same time deepening the stigma of colonized societies as barbaric and backward.

Perhaps because of the minimal benefit working people actually derived from imperialism, there is little unequivocal evidence to suggest that the bulk of working people were successfully coopted into supporting imperialism. Popular support for displays of jingoism such as "mafficking" appears to have come instead from the lower middle class, which, threatened with proletarianization, bargained desperately for status and inclusion by identifying with the state through jingoism.

Although scholarship about popular resistance to empire is not copious, critics of empire were never absent from the metropole. European critics included the theosophist Annie Besant and the socialists Karl Marx and James Keir Hardie. Colonial subjects living in Europe for educational or professional reasons also formed vocal if numerically small networks of opposition to empire and imperial abuses. C. L. R. James, a West Indian-born activist, was prominent in the Pan-Africa movement; a series of Pan-African Conferences brought well-articulated anti-imperial agendas to the heart of empire. Figures such as Olaudah Equiano, Dr. John Alcindor, and Ho Chi Minh spent substantial time in Europe and intervened in debates about empire.


Metropolitan class and gender relations were infused with imperialist agendas. When the near loss of the Boer War prompted belated scrutiny of the physical debility of Britain's poor, working-class mothers became subjects of surveillance and pronatalist regimentation. Sexism, classism, and racism were combined in the eugenic effort to rehabilitate an "imperial race" without modifying class relations or material inequalities. The first steps toward assisting poor and unmarried mothers in France were taken, similarly, in the name of invigorating the French nation for its imperial strivings. Fears of physical unfitness and deterioration in metropolitan populations interacted with definitions of racial qualities formulated in colonial contexts. The origin of European welfare states was thus deeply implicated in imperial projects.

If the Nazi drive for Lebensraum (living space) in eastern Europe may be considered a dimension of imperialism, then Nazi racial engineering and eugenics must also be considered in assessing the impact of imperialism on domestic populations. The impact of measures to breed a "master race" by bribing or manipulating ordinary Germans—with marriage bonuses, mothers' medals and mothers' pensions, as well as surveillance, coercion, eugenic sterilization and forced motherhood—was of a profoundly classed and gendered character. In light of Nazi expansionist and colonialist aims, the massive displacement of and genocide against central and eastern European populations in the course of World War II must also be traced to European imperialism. Programs of eugenic sterilization, coerced breeding, and ethnic cleansing, under the aegis of what Foucault called "the biopolitical state," illustrate the racial dimensions of empire as they operated within and between European societies.


While some scholars have argued that a popular cultural "retreat" from empire occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, structural interdependence continued and even intensified. Although Europe's formal empires all but disappeared after 1945, informal imperialism continues to shape the world European empires made; European societies and landscapes are ineluctably marked by the imperial past and the postcolonial present.

Economic and cultural interdependence between former colonies and metropoles persists in spite of formal autonomy. Through the extraction of raw materials and food by means of cheap labor, European industrial economies in effect remain parasites, benefiting at the expense of postcolonial ones. Colonialism's destabilization of colonized societies has produced an unforeseen legacy: empires have come home in the form of migrants and guest workers from former colonies, disrupting Orientalist and imperial dichotomies between "home and away." As in the colonial period, the metropolitan economy benefits from a labor force reproduced "offshore" at minimal cost and denied many social benefits. European states invoke national boundaries, redefinitions of citizenship, and other legal and state structures to keep this industrial workforce vulnerable, subordinated, and on the verge of exclusion.

The culture of imperialism has survived in new guises, betrayed in contemporary xenophobic notions of "fortress Europe" (Pieterse, p. 5) and "Western civilization." Renewed embrace of Christendom and the Enlightenment embodies continued Eurocentric arrogance, elitism, and chauvinism. Contemporary emphasis on a common European culture, increasingly reinforced institutionally by the European Union, excludes the non-European world in an implicitly hierarchical and Manichaean dichotomy. Simultaneously it obscures internal diversity and lingering internal marginalizations, such as the Celtic fringe. Continued Franco-German domination of the European Union reproduces imperial relations within Europe that are a millennium old.

Islam has reemerged as an immediate and visible threat in the form of migrants from the colonies and of the collective power of Middle Eastern oil producers. The collapse of one "evil empire" in the East has demanded a new Oriental adversary in Islam. Consistent with a thousand years of Orientalism, immigration controls have sought to repulse the enemy at the gates, while prurience about Muslim gender relations—a horrified fascination with "those poor downtrodden women"—remains a projection of Western sexual fantasies that simultaneously reassures Westerners of their cultural superiority, and the depiction of Muslims as a whole as violent and fanatical "fundamentalists" supports the discursive construction of a European self that is free of these qualities.

European landscapes and cultures remain imprinted with imperial aspirations and attainments. From the West India Docks and Jamaica Bridges that mark British commercial estuaries to the Mafeking Streets (named for the siege put down in Mafeking, South Africa, in 1900) and imperial monuments, to the rhododendrons adorning European gardens and the elephants and golliwogs decorating the jam pots and tea packets on European tables, the iconography of empire continues to saturate the physical geography of the metropole. Yet European societies are being transformed and enriched by African, Asian, and Caribbean people and cultures. In 1996 curry surpassed roast beef and Yorkshire pudding as the meal most frequently prepared in British households. The historical experience of empire has thus left Europeans with a common history shared with much of the globe.

See also other articles in this section.


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