‘The Anarchy is worthy of it’s author’s ambition as a brilliantly realised and enjoyably written history which looks out at it’s subject with an eye to both the past and the future.’
The EIC and the Corporatocracy
‘The country lies groaning under the Anarchy’ wrote the Compte de Modave of the country of Bengal in 1762. His use of the word anarchy was echoed by its use in the work of Mughal historians, and 20 years later by Maratha ones to describe the period of the decline and fall of their respective empires.
So too does William Dalrymple’s Anarchy, which chronicles, in a robust, fluid, style, the ‘relentless rise of the east India company.’ As the story of the fall of one is the story of the rise of the other, the author is therefore at pains to show how what he calls the world’s most magnificent Empire was replaced by a ‘dangerously unregulated private company.’ The significance of this took a while to resonate with me.
At face value this is not an unheard story, many historians have written the antique and modern records of the East India Company, this version is, however, is endowed with a new significance which has not been focused on, and certainly not with the same amount of force.
Unlike other works on the infamous conglomerate, this book is not another history of the British Company in India. It is the pursuit of an echo, which strives to examine the relationship between big business and government. It is in fact a record of the first ‘corporatocracy,’ the new imperium. We need not look to far to see an example, because that was what made the USA a superpower after WW2. And it is also what is now driving China.
If you have ever noticed how industrial countries will invest in underdeveloped ones, exchanging various advancements for material assets, then deploy military force to secure the investment after provoking confrontation, ‘The Anarchy’ will start ringing bells. As mentioned, the East India Company was truly the first recognisable corperatocracy, and it’s record shows that it all but patented the system of wealth and territorial acquisition through commerce.
The claim that the Mughal empire was the most magnificent empire in the world is crucial to the juxtaposed history at hand. Based principally on the estimated revenue for the empire during the peak of it’s success during the early to mid 17th century, this is an undoubtedly correct assertion. Perhaps Dalrymple goes a touch far to say that Elizabethan England was a cash strapped, impoverished, realm, but there was no real comparison between the Mughals and Tudors at the time when the East India Company was founded.
The EIC was remarkable because unlike other corporatocracy’s (which rely on their government to do the back-breaking) they took it upon themselves to create a military and civil service. As a result they could operate much more directly against a given target and did so with shocking success.
The mad idea that a private company such as today’s Walmart, Disney or Google could deploy it’s security forces (or even have security forces comparable to a modern state army) could grow not only in profits but indeed to actually replace a nation state and come to govern a huge chunk of the earth’s population is just that, mad.
The Imperial Accident?
And yet it happened, and it is not just Dalrymple or modern historians who have noticed the absurdity. A great swathe or intelligent thinkers wrote or voiced their befuddlement at the idea that the EIC, a private stock enterprise, answerable to it’s own shareholders, could have an army of over 100,000 men by the end of the century and be actually governing land. That number is more than twice the that available to the United Kingdom in 1793 when the war with Republican France broke out.
During Burke’s epic oration condemning Warren Hastings, he cut to the heart of the argument against this form of British rule in India. All the previous empires that had conquered it had contributed something culturally to the land as a nation, these empire’s had been or in time became Indian empires. But the company was only interested in taking from India rather than putting anything into it.
When viewed in this light it is interesting to look at the often used argument that the British brought order and law to India, stuff and nonsense to be sure, but the philanthropic bent of the later British (as opposed to Company) Raj was that it had something to prove. As if shamed by the words of it’s 18th century critics, it all but broke it’s back trying to make their presence be seen as beneficial and philanthropic.
Beginning with the formation of the company, by ‘merchants and pirates,’ and running through its measured and bumpy rise to the careers of Clive, Hastings, Cornwallis and Wellesley, the Anarchy is a sweeping and insightful history of events that many will find eerily familiar from the wars and politics of the mid 20th century.
Despite the blurb, Dalrymple is not pointing at the White House, rather the corporate driven world we live in as being a legacy of the East India Company. These businesses are pinnacles of organisation. The EIC was so effective in it’s hoarding of commodities that it reversed the flow of wealth that had been running east since roman times.
The money flow has now returned to the east and Dalrymple is hearing the echoes of the past resonating, the world he says has returned to a place it was when the EIC first came to India.
There is an argument that the British empire started accidentally. Yet with the idea of commercially driven expansion, can this be supported?
Dalrymple admits that the EIC had no long range plan to conquer the whole of South Asia, their seizure of the commerce of Bengal was purely driven by a desire for trade and developed into something both surprising and concerning as they discovered their increasing strength and abilities. Truly it was a sinister and dexterous runaway. It took almost a century for the British government to actually bring the company to heel.
Yet, like all the other colonial commercial ventures that birthed colonies, they did bring it to heel and they did take over. It was in the vested interest of the British state to see the EIC remain a successful enterprise.
Vaunted as Dalrymple’s most ambitious project yet I must admit that before I realised what the author was trying to connect with, the book seemed little more than a continuation of a pet subject. I was forced to reflect on it in a new light when realisation struck about a week later.
Dalrymple said this year that it’s scale was the ambitious part, having confined himself in previous books to reconstructing snapshots that connect a moment in time with the greater sphere of history. By comparison this is a sweeping history, of a faceless nonentity of boards, committees and armies. But that is it’s subtlety, and why it is brilliant.
Though in great part lacking any one central figure to follow, this does not mean that the characters and vignettes are now well drawn. Dalrymple’s description of Lord Wellesley as an empire building cuckoo in the Company next was priceless, and the impeachment of Warren Hastings is another example. Dalrymple, likewise, gets Clive solidly within his sights and gives no quarter.
Worryingly the book reveals that the British state did not conquer India, instead it sanctioned the actions of a private mercantile company to do so in its stead, much as it had with other ‘company’s’ during the 15th and 16th century’s.
Acting essentially as an addict does to a powerful drug, the flow of cash from the company’s clearing houses at the ports of Great Britain overwhelmed all good sense and moral imperative. As the old adage goes, the money trail is also the way to the truth of most human mysteries, and how even governments are at the mercy of big business.
It shows that the oft repeated curiosity of India being ruled by only a few civil servants is actually a legacy of the ruthlessly efficient organisation of the company, which after a century of operating still had only 35 permanent employees at head office.
At the end Dalrymple returns to his roots as a travel author and paints a languid picture of a boat sailing down the Yamuna at dusk, when the sky and water are contrasting and vivid and the land is dark, save for the blushing walls of the Red Fort. He ponders how a single private cooperation could have conquered the builders of this wondrous building.
In truth, as the book reveals, that the company did not actually conquer it in the traditional way, least of all the British government, a new kind of blueprint for empire building was founded. The company was the richest of the scavengers that came to pick at it’s carcass. Knocking aside those that had done the heavy lifting.
The Anarchy is worthy of it’s author’s ambition as a brilliantly realised and enjoyably written history which looks out at it’s subject with an eye to both the past and the future. It challenges the nostalgia and nationalism which is prevalent in India and Britain. It corrects perceptions of how and why the British conquered their jewel of great price and asks us to take a look at the word today as a comparison. Reading this it is hard not to admit that we are blithely and perilously close to the Anarchy that consumed the Mughals.