Freedom at Midnight


Today marks India’s Independence Day, which friend Xerxes considers the end of empire and the beginning of the era of decolonization.

I think he’s off by a couple of centuries or so. I’d pick July 4, 1776. Not just because that date marked the independence of 13 former colonies, but because the USA then inspired and sponsored decolonization generally. Soon after, most of the nations of the Western Hemisphere declared their independence. I believe Canadian or Australian independence was also inevitable due to the American model. That’s a large portion of the world to overlook.

Moreover, the fundamental revolutionary principle, “no taxation without representation,” if applied anywhere, makes empire impossible. It’s not an empire, or a colony, if everyone gets the vote.

The nations thus formed, on the American model, therefore further refused themselves to have empires or colonies.

The next most important date in the history of decolonization was January 8, 1918. This is when US President Wilson declared his Fourteen Points, which he was more or less able to impose at the WWI peace conferences. This dismantled the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires, another huge swath of the world. Ireland soon broke away from the British Empire. The Korean independence movement formed. The dissolution of remaining empires would have to wait, but the philosophical foundation had been laid. This is the novel idea that political boundaries should correspond to ethnic boundaries—the nation state. This made little sense for kingdoms; more for republics and democracies. When former German colonies were divided among the victors, they were assigned as League of Nations “mandates,” not as sovereign territory. Eventual independence was now assumed—for all colonies.

August 15, 1947, was just the biggest single colony to go.

But the British Raj itself did not end prior Indian independence. When the British arrived, India was under the control of the Mughals, from Uzbekistan. Empire and colonialism was not a European invention. It was the universal norm from ancient Mesopotamia until 1776, or even until Wilson’s Fourteen Points. It is the nation state, decolonialization, and democracy, and not empire, that is Europe’s historic contribution. Or rather, Europe’s and America’s.

Wilson’s ethnic nation states too have brought their problems. The nation state, after all, has given us Nazi Germany, the Young Turks, much strife at partition in India, and similar strife elsewhere—one might mention Ireland, Cyprus, Palestine, Rwanda, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Burma, Timor Leste, … it is an almost endless list. The EU can be seen as an attempt to return to some of the benefits of Empire. So too NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Were it not democratic, modern India would still be an empire. It incorporates disparate ethnic groups, of disparate languages and cultures, under one government. So too for Canada, were it not democratic. Democracy is the key, not division into ethnic states–national ghettos.

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