Sunday, 15 August 2010

Tragedy, farce and a nice cup of tea

Hegel  remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

So, famously, wrote Karl Marx. I'm sceptical - it's one of those sweeping generalisations that sounds as if it pithily captures the essence of things, but falls apart on closer scrutiny - what about all those times when history doesn't repeat itself at all? With the benefit of hindsight, historians routinely criticise unsuccessful generals for fighting the last war and being foolishly unprepared for the changed reality of the contemporary battlefield.

Sometimes events do follow a similar pattern, but don't follow the path from tragedy to levity. For example Napoleon's doomed Russian campaign was a tragic waste of life and a military failure. Hitler followed in his footsteps 130 years later. Was the later invasion, with its grim privation, five million dead, countless war crimes and merciless brutality somehow more ligthweight and just a bit of a laugh? I don't think so.

Some events echo previous ones. Later farce occasionally follows earlier tragedy. But it ain't necessarily so and I can't see any pattern, or see any good reason to think that Marx's flippant line, which may have been right about the dissolution of the French Second Republic, constitutes some sort of profound insight into the general laws of history.

I think, however, there's a modern variation of Marx's formulation that does more or less hold true, at least in the developed and developing world:

History repeats itself occurring first as epic, the second time as a heritage-themed marketing opportunity

This less pity phrase occurred to me on hearing that the Indian entrepreneur Sanjiv Mehta is resurrecting the East India Company as "a consumer brand focused on luxury foodstuffs". There's a faint echo of the old East India Company here - it did, after all, start out trading in luxury goods like silk and tea. But the scale, ruthlessness and ambition of the old monopoly enterprise contrasts starkly with the company's new incarnation as an up-market deli, selling expensive tea and posh chocolates to the more prosperous shoppers in the West End.

The old East India Company in its heyday was an economic and military juggernaut, leading the way to British Imperial domination of India. When Clive defeated the  Nawab of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plessey, he wasn't commanding regiments of the British Army, but an army belonging to the British East India Company.

In the recent past there's has been justified concern about the activities of "private armies" like Blackwater USA in Iraq. These activities, though, were miniscule in comparison with the British East India Company's role as the military spearhead of regime change in India. Subsequently, the East India Company involved itself in the highly profitable business of growing Opium in British India and trafficking it to China. The "war on drugs" is another historical conflict that keeps on coming back. The wisdom of fighting a war against illegal drugs may be questionable, but at least it's an improvement on fighting a war to keep the drug barons of the East India Company in healthy profits.

The flag of the East India Company was so well-known, that it almost certainly inspired the design of the United States' stars and stripes (illustrated, in its eighteenth century form, at the top of this post).

The old East India Company was like a Norman Castle - a powerful fact and symbol of economic, political and economic power and dominance, real, huge and inescapable. The new one is more like the National Trust gift shop in a Norman castle - a retail outlet for discretionary spending and the consumption of sanitised heritage. Marx would probably have been amused, although, IMHO, not vindicated.