When Victorian politics comes up in Steampunk I quite often hear guilt and sorrow in the voice speaking of the British Empire, that ‘we should not have done what we did then’ sort of malarky. As we look back with our glasses fogged with romanticism imperialism has gotten tarnished with the brush of badness.
Empire building is nothing new. The Persians, the Romans, the Turks, the Mongols, they were all expansionist and imperialist. There were those before them. People like having more and frequently look at taking what their neighbours have in order to get it. The Age of Imperialism is generally accepted as beginning around the mid 19th Century so bang in the Victorian period. Great Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and even the United States were all players.
For the sake of making this discussion the easier, let us call the Imperialistic countries Motherlands and the subject countries Children. You will see the appropriateness of these labels in short order.
The Motherlands were generally technologically, culturally and socially advanced; what we would term today the First World Countries [and they still are called so]. The subject countries were second and third world countries, areas of the world which had resources but no infrastructure to take advantage of such. India, Africa, The Islands, South America, parts of Asia… all very inhospitable places but people are people and it is wondrous where people will and can live.
It is true that Imperialism had its costs and disadvantages to the Child Countries. Lack of self government or, at best, a figurehead who listened to ‘advisors’ from the Motherland. Natives of the Child Countries were often considered as second class citizens. The ‘Haves’ were those of the Motherland and the handful of trusted Child Country’s parasites who stuck close to them while the ‘Have-Nots’ were the bulk of the population of the subject land. Resources were removed and sent to the industrial centers.
This is generally the focus of the Anti-Imperialists and the source of guilt among many in the Steampunk subculture.
But nothing is entirely negative and the world is all about balance. While the scales are not often laying at an equal and even level they do bob up and down.
The Motherlands imported and shared much with their Children. Technology, culture, medicine, education, finished products and more were imported into the subject countries. Advancements trickled down. A better style of living was made available and it is as much the fault of some classes and members of the Child Countries as the Motherlands that it was not shared equally. Economic and technological efficiency was increased. Opportunities increased in certain areas and regions.
You must remember that no form of government is truly and totally effective for all people because they involve people, and people are generally possessive, arrogant, egotistical and greedy [indeed there are exceptions but the rule is ever disappointing]. Save perhaps the few forms of government where the ruler(s) has/have sweeping powers and either choose not to use them or to do so beneficially for their people every form of government depends on its top level structure to be better than people are. The philosopher Herbert Spencer [1820 – 1903] considered that “The republican form of government is the highest form of government, but, because of this, it requires the highest form of human nature – a type nowhere at present existing.”
There always have been and always will be those considered ‘second class citizens’ and it is sad that Victorian Great Britain is spoken of with guilt because they did what others were doing but more effectively.
While we are looking at forms of government let us look at another system that was very loudly acclaimed during the Victorian period and still rumbles about in this modern age: anarchy.
While self-government is an interesting idea it is, in the main, unworkable.
The majority of anarchists don’t merely wish the current ruling body to be pulled down, they also wish their own to be put into place. This is not truly anarchy. It is merely replacement.
And in a system of self government where everyone is responsible for themselves how would social programs work? How would the poor and the hungry find assistance? How would crime, as we define it currently, be addressed? How would resources make their way into finished product? Anarchists often do not think things through completely.
There have been and currently are anarchistic communities but they have only ever operated on the small scale and have seen more than their fair share of problems.
To return to the British Empire it is possibly unlikely that her Child Countries [or those of the other Motherlands] would be as they are today without the influence from the imperialistic periods. Many third world countries have moved up into the second tier. A number offer technology, manufacturing and service that outstrips those of the first world countries. And the haves and have-nots today? Even under self rule the separation is vast and starvation and poverty is still widespread.
So please do not feel guilty when speaking of Great Britain just because she had an empire.
Now that you’ve loosened your sabres in their scabbards, next I shall discuss the various parts of the world in Steampunk with an eye towards costuming.