The last gasps of Imperialism

Civilization as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon in the short history of mankind. The earth has been around for some 4.5 billion years. Homo Sapiens, or modern man has only been around the last 100,000 of those years, and recorded history is even more limited, being restricted to essentially the last five thousand years or so.

During mankind’s limited time on this planet, we have evolved social and political systems to govern how we deal with each other. Until the most recent couple of centuries, the dominant form of such systems was based mostly on the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. He who was the strongest and could wield the most power ruled and laid down the rules of the game.

The past five thousand years of historical records tell us that during this time, our societies have been ruled primarily by warlords, kings, emperors, despots, tyrants, dictators, and feudal nobility that exercised control through brute force and ruthlessness. This led to endless rounds of war and conquest, culminating in the golden age of imperialism in the 17th through 20th centuries when most of the known world was carved up between half a dozen or so major global powers, mostly European. It has only been in the past century that imperialism has become discredited as a human endeavour and has waned significantly on the world stage.

The great European colonial empires have all but disappeared. The sun has finally set on the British Empire. The Germans have been disabused of their ambitions to rule Europe if not the world. The French, Spanish and Portuguese have reverted to being respectable, non-colonial and strictly European nations. The once predatory and terrifying Soviet Union has disappeared into the waste bin of history.

As the world’s population becomes increasingly more educated, and communications and trade draw the diverse elements of the world’s population closer together, the historical constraints imposed by authoritarian forms of government are rapidly disappearing, as democracy takes hold. One can make a strong claim that democracy is an inevitable historical trend.

One must remember though that democracy and human rights as such, are a relatively recent phenomenon. Although primitive forms of democracy can be traced as far back as ancient Greece some two and a half thousand years ago, the actual practice of democracy in forming representative government structures only goes back the last couple of centuries. Further, we should also recognize that even today, much of the world has still not embraced democracy.

The prestigious Economist magazine issues an annual Democratic Index, which is a rating of how democratic each country is based on electoral processes, human rights, pluralism and other relevant factors. As of 2019, 46% or 76 countries on earth were considered “democratic” in some form. Most of these are located in Europe and the Americas. Most of Asia, Africa and the Middle East are still struggling to emerge from their feudal past and shed their anachronistic and dysfunctional authoritarian systems of governance. There obviously is still a long way to go until most people on this planet can enjoy the full benefits that democracy brings. And yet, we should also remember that on this score, we are light years ahead of where things were only a century or two ago.

When one examines why some areas of the world are so far behind in terms of democratic norms, we see two major focal points to the reactionary forces holding back democratic progress. One of the foremost of these is Vladimir Putin and Russia. This megalomaniac and his elite oligarchic supporters have not given up on the historical Russian penchant for wielding the iron fist and indulging in imperialistic conquest. They are a serious destabilizing force to all of their neighbours. They are also fomenting conflict and supporting terrorism wherever they can, with Syria being a classic recent example.

The second world power that still indulges in authoritarianism and imperialistic ambitions is China. They too invest a lot of time, money and effort in trying to de-stabilize their western democratic competitors. Were it not for Chinese support, the world’s most despotic and cruel regime in North Korea would not be able to exist. The Chinese are overtly seeking to extend their sphere of influence not only in Asia, but more recently in Africa and various third world countries.

Although Russia and China currently pose serious threats to world peace and order, we should keep in mind that they are likely at the tail end of an inevitable trend that eventually leads towards democracy. They are the last gasp of authoritarianism and imperialism in an evolutionary progressive social process.

The end of the Soviet Union did not lead to the end of history as one historian once quipped. While it may take a few more generations, I am confident that Putin’s Russia will disintegrate in the not-too-distant future, as will the Chinese Communist monolith. Much as how the Christianity teaches us to have faith in the inevitable triumph of good over evil, so too we must have faith that democracy will inexorably win out over the reactionary medieval forces seeking to suppress individual hopes and freedoms.