Post-Empire Morality

Since the Gunpowder Revolution, Europeans had surpassed the constraints of the feudal system. The ever rising cost of war and management of the state became the impetus for the Age of Exploration which saw the rapid global domination of European powers and the start of their hegemony.T he growing rivalries and demands of managing such a system put a great toll on the colonies, whose very life blood and livelihoods fueled these conflicts. WWII took this to the extreme, with global powers putting the colonial system to the test and to its eventual collapse in the post-war period.

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As victors, the British and French should have been confident in their dominance over the old world, but this was not the case. The revolutions in Asia and the loss of those colonies in the post-war brought colonial possessions into question. The intensity of the fighting and the demands that Europe place on their colonies caused the drive for self-determination and recognition that erupted into revolution.  F. Cooper, the author of Reconstructing Empire, named the colonies as the most important aspect of the war effort and post-war recovery, but the problem was that the colonies knew this as well. The demands of the war created an “inclusive” empire that made returning to the empire of old impossible (Cooper, p. 200). To address this, 2nd class citizenship was disseminated to tribal entities at the expense of true control over these colonies (Ibid, p. 203). He concluded that Europe’s survival depended on the colonies and that France needed to refocus their efforts to Africa; however, this contrasted the moral implications of enforcing an empire.

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Colonialism, in essence, relied on the subjugation of a people who were culturally, politically, and militarily inferior to their retainers. While France as a whole was still stronger than any of their individual holdings, their ability to keep control over their many possessions required military action. In Algeria, the French switched from a policy of “promotion musulmane“, multiculturalism, but they also resorted to violent suppression as well. The French-Algerian War was especially bloody, with over 2.4 million Algerians placed in death camps due to collective punishment (Sartre, p. 72). The suppression of rights itself went counter to the French spirit of nationalism and Republic, yet the necessity of colonial resources outranked this. As a result, France was at conflict with what it needed to survive and the essence of their national ideology and beliefs. For Sartre, the situation in Africa represented the decline of French hegemony and showed that the need to use terror against colonies proved that France was too weak to maintain an empire. The fact that so many African soldiers, as many as 250-350,000, had suffered in WWII and were refused recompense tolled heavily on French morality (Schmidt, p. 446). The images above show African service members fighting in the war effort, yet they were still not afforded the basic rights that a victor of a conflict such as WWII would be expected to deliver. Because of this, states revolted and sought self-determination on their own terms instead of through the colonial system.

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Imperial powers were caught in a rough place during the post-war period. On one hand, they needed colonial assets to rebuild and survive; however, the morality and sustainability of this system was called into question. Massive casualties in revolution and suppression outlined these conflicts and Britain and France were unable to sustain this. Today, these colonies have formed their own nation-states, albeit unstable ones,  and they drew off of the old institutions and systems that Europe had left in place, which were purposefully debilitating ones. The Rwandan Genocide stands as one of the most notable modern examples, with hundreds of thousands dead in an ethnic conflict that resulted from a divisive Dutch system. In our world now, empires exist through economic coalitions that influence the world through collective action, or inaction, instead of direct control over foreign entities. We need to recognize how empires coalesce power over others and use their influence to maintain their way of life. The US does this today, and it maintains an uneasy balance in the use of its power against the world’s new direction.


“Algeria: The War Didn’t End in 1945,” Socialist Worker (1950).pdfPreview the documentView in a new window

Elizabeth Schmidt, Popular Resistance and Anti-Colonial Mobilization – The War Effort in French Guinea, in Africa and World War II, ed. Judith A. Byfield, et al., 441-61 (2015).pdfPreview the documentView in a new window

Jean-Paul Sartre, Colonialism and Neocolonialism (1964), excerpted.pdfPreview the documentView in a new window

Frederick Cooper, Reconstructing Empire in British and French Africa, Past and Present 210 (Supp. 6), (2011).pdfPreview the documentView in a new window

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