Photo by Chris Ratcliffe
Artillery Row

All Rhodes lead to ruin

Who was Cecil Rhodes, really?

According to the nameless activists who run the website for the global Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford, “deconstructing how we remember Rhodes as an archetypal symbol of European colonialism is a first step to engaging with the colonial apologism that prevents us from learning from history’s mistakes”. 

Towards this goal, the campaign is currently attempting to impose an intramural boycott on students from Oriel College receiving tutorials at other colleges, subject to the college undertaking to destroy the Cecil Rhodes statue which stands above a doorway on the facade of a college building.

The action follows an earlier initiative in South Africa in April 2015, where activists succeeded in forcing the removal of a Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, an institution Rhodes and his employer Alfred Beit helped establish. Six weeks later, a UK group compelled the Oxford Union to admit that it was institutionally racist, after it marketed a cocktail called the Colonial Comeback cocktail to accompany a debate on whether Britain owes reparations to her former colonies.

In both Cape Town and in Oxford, the campaign has been led by Rhodes scholars. The Oxford group was co-founded by Ntokozo Qwabe, a Rhodes scholar from South Africa and an exceptionally lousy tipper. In 2017, two leaders of the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign in Cape Town were awarded Oxford scholarships, including a young man who compared the presence of a Rhodes statue in Cape Town to “putting a swastika in Jerusalem”. He went on to work for the Rhodes Trust and now works for former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

All these individuals have faced accusations of hypocrisy. But in a deeper sense, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is both aligned with Rhodes’s vision and strikingly encapsulates his failure. Hegel’s dictum that the thing to learn from history is that nobody has ever learned a single thing from history once again suggests its relevance.

Denounced by the activists in now familiar ways, Rhodes’s singular position in world history is better grasped between his famous declaration that “expansion is everything… I would annex the planets if I could” and his inspiration by the Victorian polymath John Ruskin, known as “the Master”, whose inaugural 1870 Oxford lecture Rhodes copied out in long hand and carried with him for the next three decades.

Addressing Oxford at the apex of British economic power, Ruskin argued that Britain’s magnificent tradition of beauty, liberty and law imposed upon her ruling class a duty to extend that tradition to Britain’s underprivileged urban masses, and the non-English people of the world.

Against a backdrop of unprecedented surpluses of capital hungry for new markets, Rhodes and a host of his contemporaries including Alfred (later Lord) Milner, Arnold Toynbee, and the radical journalist W.T. Stead were sufficiently impressed to devote themselves “to extend the English-speaking idea” across the globe. 

The men combined into a network committed to transforming an ad hoc colonial policy conceived primarily in missionary and mercantilist terms into a project of moral and political development. Imagined originally as a secret society, patterned on the Jesuits, with Rhodes as Superior General, the group set out to materialize a British empire united by liberal idealism, ultimately also reincorporating the United States. 

Following Rhodes’s death in 1902, and the execution of his sixth and final will, this vision was formalized under Alfred Milner as the Rhodes Trust, including the Rhodes scholarship program, which was the first scholarship program in the world, and the international Round Table Movement, which established satellites of sympathetic individuals in global capitals committed to a vision of imperial federation.

Later, under the influence of Milner’s protegé Lionel Curtis, the group established the Royal Institute of International Affairs, or Chatham House, in London, and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The latter in particular remains extremely influential to this day. The current US Presidential Administration features no less than ten CFR members in senior Cabinet roles; other prominent members include former US Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Eric Schmidt.

The European nation state presented a totally inappropriate vehicle for implementing an imperial project

Yet the contradictions of the enterprise were already apparent from the outset. As Hannah Arendt observes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, unlike industrial production, political structures cannot simply be expanded, or exported, or imposed, without fundamentally altering their character. Not only that, but the European nation state, a political unit anchored in specific territorial, linguistic and legal traditions, presented a totally inappropriate vehicle for implementing an imperial project. 

The result was the elaboration of a different structure altogether, based on different principles: the colonial administration. No longer rooted in an organic constitution or traditional conception of authority, the new idea was based on rationalizing principles of population management or what Milner’s early patron Lord Cromer called the “government of subject races”. Following its elaboration on the imperial periphery, this new model of governmental power returned to Europe with barbed wire and machine guns during the First World War to fulfill Edmund Burke’s prophetic warning of “the breaker of the law in India becoming the maker of the law for England”. 

Entrenched across the world by the beginning of the thirties, administrative government, or what James Burnham calls the managerial revolution, has continued to develop. In this respect, the activists are right to see in Rhodes the origins of something like structural racism. But the extraordinarily conflicted psychological reality of their own positions with respect to it leads them to radically misunderstand its novelty, and reveals the fatal flaw of the entire project.

Rhodes and his associates inherited some of the prejudices of their era, but the Rhodes Scholarship was race-blind from the outset. The idea wasn’t to create a racial hierarchy, but a cadre of administrators, selected for their literary and scholarly but also physical and moral qualities and especially their capacity for active leadership, for the benefit (it was presumed) of all concerned. Except the act of separating a Westernized, or now globalized elite of managers from a non-elite administrated population had consequences of its own: a painfully deranging double consciousness, radically destructive of coherent thought.

This problem has only been exacerbated with the corrosion of Rhodes’s and Milner’s more classical ideas of virtue into a brittle ideology defined by sentimental symbols. The fantastical admixture of terms from Jungian psychology (“archetype”) and French phenomenology which the Rhodes Must Fall scholar-activists invoke in order to attack their nominal benefit is symptomatic and self-incriminating.

British confidence, or overconfidence, in the universality of her liberal culture rested on the dominance of her industrial economy, which itself rested on a fortunate series of historical circumstances. With the diffusion of the industrial revolution around the world, that power weakened, leaving behind the death mask of an administration without an ethos beyond its own perpetuation.

In truth, Rhodes already fell a century ago, or more. Occupied now by deracinated imperial subjects split between a traditional culture which has been liquidated, and a British imperial culture which no longer exists, all that now remains is a mindless, superficial jargon. 

As another former Rhodes scholar once told Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt: “Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.” Is it not extraordinary that in a new era of rapacious expansionism, with a scramble for data replacing the scramble for Africa,  the elite of the world can think of no superior outlet for their energy and talent than to complain about the names of the drinks they’re served and damn the memory of their nominal benefactor to pad their own CVs?

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