Technologies of Rule between Colony and Metropole

Speakers: Erik Linstrum, Mircea Raianu, Toby Harper

Chair: David Edgerton

Empire’s potential to function as a “laboratory of modernity” — a space for sometimes radical, often authoritarian experiments in governance beyond the constraints of the metropole — is a key concept in the historiography of French imperialism.  Historians of British imperialism, by comparison, have paid little attention to the movement of technologies of rule between colony and metropole.  Studies of transimperial movement tend to focus on commodities and bodies rather than the less visible world of ideas and practices which governed both; perhaps as a result, they often overlook the frustrated aims, unexpected consequences, and points of friction which confront all globalizing projects.  This panel brings together intellectual, scientific, and social histories of empire to ask how techniques for making citizens into subjects migrated between Britain and its empire in the twentieth century — a process marked by discontinuities and disillusionments on a scale to match the ambitions which fueled it.  Mircea Raianu traces the circulation of Fabian social science and Taylorist industrial psychology between Britain and India from the 1920s to the 1940s, taking the Tata family’s patronage and use of expert knowledge as a case study in the limits of technocracy.  Erik Linstrum shows that the use of tear gas by British police originated with visions of chemical warfare as a form of colonial counterinsurgency — a bloodless means of controlling space and atomizing opposition considered too controversial for deployment at home until the Troubles of the 1970s.  Toby Harper examines the strange career of the imperial honours system, highlighting the plasticity and persistence of a conspicuous anachronism in post-imperial Britain.  Against the backdrop of debates about the portability of expertise and the politics of knowledge, these papers suggest that empire made a seductive but imperfect laboratory for British life.

Paper 1 Abstract: The Limits of Technocracy at the End of Empire: British Capital and Expertise in the Indian Steel Industry, ca. 1900-1960

Mircea Raianu

The Tata Iron and Steel Company at Jamshedpur was the largest integrated steelworks in the British Empire, founded in 1907 as a pioneering enterprise in a quintessentially ‘backward’ agrarian region of eastern India. From the very beginning, the Tatas experienced recurring tensions between their nationalist claims to swadeshi (self-sufficiency) and reliance on foreign capital and expertise. This paper begins by situating the origins of the Tatas’ cultivation of technocratic management in the work of the Department of Social Science and Administration at LSE, funded by a Tata philanthropic foundation and tasked with making recommendations on welfare policy at Jamshedpur. I then show how TISCO resisted the implementation of both Fabian ideas and modified Taylorist programmes of labour efficiency from the 1920s until the aftermath of the Second World War. As the vision to make Jamshedpur into another Bournville or Port Sunlight faded, Indian industrial psychology provided the conceptual vocabulary necessary for the problems of ‘indigenous’ or ‘vernacular’ capitalism to be resolved within a global and comparative frame. In so doing, the paper re-thinks the transition from paternalism or welfare capitalism to industrial relations and personnel management across the metropolitan-colonial divide. The marginalisation of British expertise continued in the 1950s, amidst the pressures of Cold War competition, the nationalisation of the steel industry in Britain and the establishment of state-run steel plants in Nehru’s India that could effectively compete with the Tatas. I conclude by reflecting on the possibilities of new economic and intellectual histories of the British Empire opened up by the archives of a business firm once on the ‘periphery’ – now very much at the centre after Tata Steel’s acquisition of Corus (the erstwhile British Steel) in 2007.

Paper 2 Abstract: Normalizing Chemical Weapons: Tear Gas and State Violence in the British Empire, 1919-1981

Erik Linstrum

In her essay On Violence (1969), Hannah Arendt identified a recurring anxiety of British imperialism: the prospect that “rule by violence in faraway lands would end by affecting the government of England.”  The history of the technology known as tear gas suggests that Arendt’s definition of state violence — exacting temporary obedience through the use of force when unable to command loyalty — did indeed travel from colony to metropole.  For more than fifty years beginning in 1919, British authorities deployed varieties of toxic but nonlethal gas to combat riots and insurgencies in India, the Middle East, and Africa while observing a prohibition on its use for the same purpose in the British Isles.  When that taboo was broached at last — first during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1969 and then more permanently in response to unrest in Brixton and Liverpool in 1981 — it was not only a chemical formula but a set of tactics which arrived in Britain from the colonies.  The use of violence against bodies was less an end in itself than an instrument for the fulfillment of other aims: establishing control over physical space, frustrating collective action, and demoralizing opposition by projecting a pervasive form of power.  Each of these rationales for chemical violence originated in the colonial context but ultimately guided and justified the militarization of the police in late twentieth-century Britain.

Paper 3 Abstract: The Imperial Origins of the Modern British Honours System

Toby Harper

Lloyd George’s war government created the Order of the British Empire in 1917 to reward voluntary service by British civilians to the war effort, but it quickly became something far bigger. The military used it around the empire to reward non-combatant and sometimes combatant service; imperial governors and governments applied it to their subject populations in various ways; and the British government found it a useful tool for integrating interest groups deemed to be in need of recognition. In theory, the new order provided a unified trans-imperial system for marking both social status and the relative value of service to the state. It also borrowed from a late nineteenth-century technology of imperial management, refined in India, through which the crown promised status and recognition to colonial elites and professional classes in exchange for a symbolic demonstration of their loyalty. From the 1960s, however, politicians and administrators in Britain downplayed the imperial character of this order, in terms of both its origin and name. As governments of former colonies adopted national orders, discarding the Order of the British Empire, it was transformed into an almost purely domestic honour with a focus on local service. Attempts to rename it were rejected using the argument that it was important to keep the name of the Order of the British Empire because the British Empire itself was no longer important. Defenders of the honours system argued that the Order’s name was an unproblematic, apolitical and traditional reflection of national will. This paper examines the connection between the imperial genealogy of the modern British honours system and its domestic use. Even (perhaps especially) after the decline of the formal empire, these imperial connections remained and remain an important part of the way in which Britain celebrates its “heroes”.


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