Monday, May 25, 2009

Conquest: David Day

Another book recommendation. I've never understood the fundamental moral or ethical justification for international law or national sovereignty in contested geographies, other than what Australian historian David Day calls Right of Conquest -- Might Makes Right, followed by propaganda, myth making and "history" written by the victors.

The War Nerd puts it succinctly:

"I don't live this double life, benefiting from the fact that my house is built on some other tribe's land and then pretending to regret that. I'll always remember having to study Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and everyone sobbing for the poor Indians, but nobody's gonna give them the land back. I mean, one way or the f*#king other: either you give them the land back, or you admit you're a predator and you eat meat."

[Note: I am not endorsing imperialism or genocide here. I am criticizing hypocrisy and self-deluding moralizers. By all means give them their land back, or at least try harder to make things right, before lecturing other nations about international law or human rights.]

Podcast interview with the author. In the interview Day notes that the idea for the book came from the contrasting attitudes of Churchill and Australian Prime Minister Menzies during the second world war. Churchill seemed confident that Britain as a nation and people could survive a defeat by the Germans, whereas Menzies feared that the European presence in Australia could not survive a Japanese victory.

Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others

The history of the world has been the history of peoples on the move, as they occupy new lands and establish their claims over them. Almost invariably, this has meant the violent dispossession of the previous inhabitants. Whether it is the Normans in England, the Chinese in Tibet, the Germans in Poland, the Indonesians in West Papua, or the British and Americans in North America, the claiming of other people's lands and the supplanting of one people by another has shaped the history of societies from the ancient pastto the present day. David Day tells the story of how this happened - the ways in which invaders have triumphed and justified conquest which, as he shows is a bloody and often prolonged process that can last centuries. And while each individual conquest is ultimately unique, nevertheless they often share a number of qualities, from the re-naming of the conquered land and the invention of myth to justify what has taken place, to the exploitation of the conquered resources and people, and even to the outright slaughter of the original inhabitants. Above all, as Day shows in this hugely bold and ambitious book, conquest can have deep and long-lasting consequences - for the conquered, the conquerors, and for the wider course of world history.

Reviewer comments:

In Conquest David Day poses the question fundamental to all studies of imperial expansion by all societies: ‘how does a society that moves onto the land of another make that place its own?’ To find an answer he examines ten common strategies, ranging from striking a legal claim to colonization. This is a highly original approach. It demonstrates a spectacular knowledge of contrasting situations across the globe and forces the reader to rethink old certainties. It should be read by all students of ‘supplanting societies’ of all races and in all continents.

Emeritus Professor David Fieldhouse, author of The Colonial Empires

David Day's thesis is simple but controversial: it is that no nation or people now exists who have been in continuous occupation of the land which they regard as their own, and that there is none that did not seize the land on which they live from some previous possessors by force of conquest.

This deceptively simple, indeed obvious, conclusion based on wide reading has profound implications for the ways in which we view the exercise of power, the notion of ‘just war’, the theoretical underpinnings of any modern nation's right to exist. It also profoundly challenges the basic polarity of postcolonial studies, that between colonizer and colonized.

Judges' comments, Gleebooks Prize


Barry Kelly said...

The "novel" observation that every culture has displaced another culture at some point by violent conquest is facile and hardly original. However, even assuming this, it plainly does not follow that, therefore, might is right in the clash of cultures - as you appear to have concluded in your introductory paragraph and your approving quote from War Nerd.

Law develops slowly over time; ideally, it improves efficiency over the days when we had to physically strike out against those who had wronged us. People buy into a social contract, where they submit to a higher authority so that they can claim the benefits and protection of that higher authority when the time comes.

Just because, in the distant past, tribes had to visit vengeance upon those who had wronged them, it does not follow that current rule of law and just power of the state has no moral or ethical foundations.

This social contract reasoning applies just as well to nation states and international law, as it does to people and their nation state.

The moral and ethical justification for international law has the same foundation as contract law: trust based on reciprocal expectations and responses to expectations.

When someone violates international law, they are breaking that trust. If you feel that promising someone something, and then breaking that promise, is not unethical, not immoral, then it does indeed follow that you would think that international law has no basis in ethics or morality. But you would be in the minority, and a bit of a scumbag too.

Anonymous said...

Barry lost me at "... just power of the state..."I think Kenneth Arrow put to bed the idea that the ecumenical We, with Our collective values could also be collectively just.

Steve Hsu said...

In quoting the War Nerd, I am actually more in favor of "give them their land back" (or, at least, try a lot harder to make things right) than pretending to endorse an ethical basis for international law and national sovereignty (now that your side is on top) while ignoring how you got there.

The War Nerd polemic makes it clear that if you aren't willing to try to make things right, you can't at the same time claim to be deriving your sovereignty or international law from a sound moral basis. You are in fact nothing more than the self-deluding beneficiary of Might Makes Right.

Yes, property rights make for more efficient economic transactions. But from what, fundamentally, do those property rights derive when one group of people (e.g., Native Americans, Aboriginals) has never accepted the sovereignty of the state making the laws? The "social contract" here is, at root, not the benign one you have in mind.

Ian Smith said...

Then were all those people with the "Ban Aprtheid" bumper sticks in the 80s self-deluding?

Steve Hsu said...

If they weren't also working for Native American rights here in the US then they certainly weren't very consistent.

Luke Lea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Smith said...

It is funny that most of Latin America is ruled by a white minority, but has no ANC or Mugabe.

sicklittlemonkey said...

The book looks very interesting given its comprehensive aim. Google doesn't have the index though, so I was unable to quickly ascertain whether it covers New Zealand colonial history.

NZ Maori have probably been dealt with more fairly (in recent times) than any other aboriginal people. The contrast with Australia couldn't be starker despite the two countries often being lumped together in any generalization.

And I will recommend this to a Bulgarian friend who has strong views on some of the Balkan regions.


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