Wars, Opium, Powerful Governments and Weak Nations

“It is the opium of the people.”

Marx was referring to religion and why it was necessary. Opium is a powerful narcotic and painkiller. According to him – and I agree with his analysis – religion to the vast majority of the people is a comforting illusion made a necessity by their real miseries. He wrote:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

The more miserable the material conditions of the people, the more intensely religion gets a stranglehold on them. And in a vicious cycle of dependency, religion pulls them down further into the abyss. Monotheistic religions have done so in the past and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future—intensify the misery that gave birth to them.

Spirituality, on the other hand, arises within people only when they are freed from a miserable existence and have the luxury to search for truth and meaning in attempt to fully comprehend their own selves.

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I clearly recall the shock that I experienced when I first learnt of the Opium Wars. Over the years, as I have learnt more about the ways of the world, the Opium Wars have become a powerful symbol—a metaphor—which I employ to explain to myself some of the features of the world.

I like metaphors. Take the sinking of the steamship Titanic, for instance. Enormous hubris, simple common place human errors, an unfortunate set of natural circumstances, and engineering design flaws combined to produce what has become an enduring symbol of failure. Of course, failures can give rise to high drama and very successful motion pictures.

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The Opium Wars is the perfect metaphor for many situations we face today. It combines greed for wealth, lust for power, racial prejudice and ruthless efficiency. It is a mirror that reflects via the present the past into the future. A cross-sectional snapshot of forces that played on that stage in the early nineteenth century, it is still an accurate picture of the world stage today with a few surprising changes in the roles of the actors.

The 19th century story is simple. Chinese goods were in demand in the Western world but the Chinese could not find much that they would want in exchange from the West. So they were being paid in silver. This drain of European currency was not desirable and so the British decided that selling drugs to the Chinese was a great idea. Procure the opium in India and sell it to the Chinese—illegally if they could get away with it, and if not, fight a couple of wars.

Here is James L Hevia quoted in Critical Montages:

By the early part of the nineteenth century, British Indian opium had stanched the flow of New World silver into China, replacing silver as the commodity that could be exchanged for Chinese tea and other goods. By the 1830s, silver was flowing out of China to India and beyond. As opium imports in China steadily increased, the political and economic results in India, Britain, and the greater empire were profound. . . . [T]ea and sugar duties helped to pay for the Royal Navy’s upkeep and development. Opium revenues in India not only kept the colonial administration afloat, but sent vast quantities of silver bullion back to Britain. The upshot was the global dominance of the British pound sterling until World War I.

In this respect, the figures compiled by John Richards in his study of opium revenue in India [“The Opium Industry in British India,” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 39.2-3, 2002, pp.149–180] are instructive. Managed through the East India Company monopoly, opium, by 1839, accounted for around 11 percent of the total revenue of the British establishment in India, a figure that held for the next decade. After 1850, the opium produced 16–17 percent of revenues, peaking at 100 plus million rupees (10 million pounds sterling) annually by the early 1880s. Over this period of time, opium revenues equaled around 42 percent of the land tax, the other main source of monies of the British Raj. Although there was a drop-off after 1890, opium still generated around 8 percent of total revenue for the next two decades at an average of about 75 million rupees annually. The direct revenue generated by opium in India was supplemented by the inflow of silver from sales of the drug in China. In 1839, the figure was 22.6 million rupees, and it steadily increased to around 41 million rupees per year on average in the decade from 1865 to 1875. There was a reduction afterwards, but around 22 million rupees per year still entered India through the mid-1890s. In addition to these monies, there was also a movement of silver bullion from the British trading firms in China, such as Jardine and Matheson, to London banks.

As Carl Trocki has argued, and Richards’ data supports, without opium the British global empire is virtually unimaginable. [Emphasis mine.-Atanu]

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Like religion is the opium of the masses, wars are the opium of the states.

At some time, the people have to be distracted from their real miseries and the state pacifies (if that is the right word) the people by engaging in war with an enemy, real or imagined. People cannot engage in war, only states can. The more powerful the state becomes relative to the power of the people, the more wars the state engages in. Military dictatorships are obvious candidates of this general principle but so-called democracies are not exempt. When the state is relatively weaker than the people, wars are less likely because the state is not sufficiently powerful to overrule the desire of the people to lead a peaceful existence.

The military dictatorship in Pakistan is typical in this regard. The people of Pakistan are powerless, poor, and their suffering is real. The state is powerful and distracts its people by waging a perpetual war against India. To maintain power—and indeed to increase its power relative to the power of the people—the military has to increasingly spend the national resources in buying more weapons.

There is a great deal of difference between the US and Pakistan, of course. However, when it comes to the use of war to distract people, the basic outline remains the same.

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It is probably the ignorance of history that saves a lot of people from the charge of hypocrisy in their so-called “war on drugs”. But I cannot attribute to ignorance of history the hypocritical condemnation of the “weapons of mass destruction” by those who invented them in the first place, and continue to build more of them.

I have often marveled at the horrors that sanctimonious religiosity devoid of spirituality has inflicted on humanity. Fundamentally it is the quest for raw power that motivates both the leaders of organized religions and the leaders of governments to increase their hold on the population. In the case of monotheistic religions, increasing the membership and having increasing control over the members’ life is the way to power; in the case of governments, increasing the size of the government and intruding in the private and public lives of its citizens is the way to power for the leaders.

The real disaster of course occurs when both the institutions—the religious and the governmental—are run by the same set of people. A relevant example is the Islamic countries. An Islamic state is by definition a government run by the religious institution. Therefore Islamic states behave internally as expected: heavily intrusive in the private and public life of its citizens; and externally as expected: waging wars with its neighbors. The founders of the United States of America understood the dangers unchecked governmental power, as much as they understood the power and corruption of churches. They therefore wisely put a barrier in place between the two. But slowly that barrier is eroding and a government which intrudes into the private lives of its citizens is beginning to emerge, and a government that undertakes needless wars overseas is evident.

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In the case of India, the majority of Indians are do not subscribe to intolerant monotheistic creeds. Due to this, an all-powerful religious institution cannot grow up. In a sense, it is as if in the religious sphere, India has a competitive market and is not dominated by a monopolist. As long as the monotheists don’t take over India (and I am not sure one day India may not become majority monotheistic), India is safe from that threat. But India is more and more vulnerable from the other evil: powerful government.

An increasingly bigger and powerful government is the real and present danger that India faces. It was a large intrusive controlling government that has forged the chains that have held the Indian economy captive since independence. The British created that government for its own extractive and exploitative ends and once the British left, those who took over the reins were more than willing to enjoy the benefits of power over the economy. However, a government that becomes powerful does so only at the expense of the power of the people. And since the power of the people determine the prosperity of the nation, the more powerful the government relative to the people, the more impoverished the nation is.

If you want a prosperous nation, you must have a powerful people and a weak government. For India to develop, the power has to shift from the government to the people. That is the law.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

13 thoughts on “Wars, Opium, Powerful Governments and Weak Nations”

  1. Hi Atanu,

    I loved the difference between religion and spirituality… amazing!! It is a revelation. I always used to wonder at what level does religion become a reason for conflict, rather than being a very personal way of life. This distinction has helped me understand that to some extent.

    Cheers,
    Navin.
    PS: We have met thru Rajesh Jain, to jog your memory.

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  2. “Spirituality, on the other hand, arises within people only when they are freed from a miserable existence and have the luxury to search for truth and meaning in attempt to fully comprehend their own selves.”

    Atanu, I respectfully disagree. The spiritual path can be beset with emotional confusion, existential angst, and a recurring sense that one need not have opened this chapter on one’s life after all. So yes, perhaps spirituality is a feasible path for those who do not suffer materially; whether that makes for more or less misery is a question of subjective judgement, and ultimately, really, of experience.

    Atanu’s response: Deep, I don’t see where we disagree. I don’t claim that the spiritual journey is like flying first class; only that one does not even embark on that journey until having transcended one’s material needs. That the spiritual journey is hard — indeed it could be harder than the journey to transcend materialism — I am in total agreement with you.

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  3. I agree with your statement: “For India to develop, the power has to shift from the government to the people.”

    Though there are numerous angles to the “power to the people” paradigm, let me talk about one narrow issue of decentralization in general and the Panchayat Raj in particular.

    A real decentralization even to the lowest macro unit gives the power to the people. A true decentralization would not let a central government dismiss a legally elected state government. A true decentralization will not let a state government abuse the Panchayat Raj for the electoral benefits of the ruling party.

    One good example of decentralization has happened in AP where they replaced the Taluq with a smaller unit called Mandal, which comprises only of 5 to 6 villages. It has done wonders by bringing the transparency to the decision-making & flow of funds.

    I would even argue for a model of propositions as in California where people can vote for legislation (and even recall the elected people).

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  4. Atanu,

    Why is religion different from spirituality ?

    As far as I think religion strives to provide framework for things spiritual and temporal.

    If religion is to be blamed for conflicts then irreligious idealogies have caused more conflict and grief in this century.

    By blaming religion for human ignorance , you are following people who blame human misery on science.

    As an aside how can you, who doesn’t believe in God, can believe in spirituality ?

    By religion here I mean “dharma”, ofcourse.

    Regards

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  5. Hi Atanu

    That was a great summation of the different sources of conflict in the world today – governemnts, religion and drugs. But an exception among nations being poor and religious is America. Americans seem to be excessively religious despite living in a powerful and wealthy nation, which I would attribute to the seperation of the church and state 2 centuries ago. On the subject of war, I think that by threating conflicts, America attempts to retain its competitive edge and reputation as a bully and thus keeps other nations in a state of political submission. History is witness to the fact that powerful states lost their place in the world when they became peaceful.

    Cheers

    Jyoti

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  6. Gaurav,
    Religion and spirituality are two different concepts. One forces way of living and other encourages to discover what is best for you. I assume you are Hindu. This is an example of a very evolved religion where tolerance and accomodation for others is taught in religion. As opposed to this, monotheistic religion wants us to renounce all other faiths. This becomes the source of hatred.
    As you suggest, if misery is blamed for human ignorance, that is what religion does to you. Religion forces you to believe in something, without thinking of it as right or wrong for ‘you’ individually. This is ignorance. Somethings suit you better than other and someone else. Spirituality asks you to explore it for yourself. It makes you ponder for yourself. Enlightenment comes from search for what is right for you (which is obviously relative).

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  7. Excellent points Atanu. I sound like a broken record 🙂 The Opium War reference is very apt.

    Fortunately, monotheism in India is not a threat in the immediate future. You have identified a big and powerful government as the curret danger. I am disconnected from the ground realities as an NRI, but I get the sense that government control over the industry continues to weaken. Unpredictable coalition politics seem to be the way of the immediate future, so the government is hobbling on one leg or less. When they have to appease those pathetic anachronist Marxists, our hearts all miss a collective beat. But by and large I thought the unshackling of the economy was progressing satisfactorily. Were you referring to increased government control over the individual / erosion of personal rights? I’ve never seriously thought about it, but assume India is not really regressing in this sphere; though improvements are few and far between. Semi-facetiously, the news I hear about an Indian ‘Playboy’ concept, however meek it may start out, indicates the opposite! So I interpret your point to be a general observation. Was there something specific/ominous that you were reacting to?

    Regarding the third evil: war – you did not spell it out in this thread though you certainly discuss it elsewhere – the military-industry nexus that forces it as in the US, making a mockery of democracy and stability and ultimately threatening to consume all the gains. Fortunately, it does not appear to be a threat to India. Yet 🙂 ?? Perhaps it kicks in after a while.

    I saw the movie ‘Syriana’ tonight. Recently released in the US, the movie is about oil, corporate meddling, and the middle east. Based on Robert Baer’s memoir “See No Evil”, it is better than any documentary and a brilliant, authentic, and depressing reflection of our times. I mention it in reference to this topic because it powerfully depicts that the monotheistic and violent manifestation of Islam (Madrassas et al) and corporate nexus with government, military, and foreign policy are equally ugly faces of the same coin.

    So motivated by your enumeration of three evils to be wary of (monotheistic dogma, war to distract, domineering government) I add a fourth: war instigated by a powerful industry coterie for ill-advised short term profit. I think it is distinct from the Opium War lesson as that wholly benefitted England’s treasury than a single, perverted segment.

    Before I end my ramble, I was hoping that you would tie your numerous observations back to lessons learned in New Zealand, Atanu. Is there a society and government that has figured it out mostly, and is ahead in the ethical and quality-of-life game? Though I have a depressing feeling that the small scale of NZ may make for convenient or weak inferences.

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  8. Hello Atanu,

    The points raised by you and by Pankaj in response to Gaurav regarding a basic schism between religion and spirituality seems to miss an essential aspect of the Indian civilization.

    In the Indian tradition, being religious means to live a life of self–awareness and constantly endeavor towards
    self– realization through self – knowledge.

    The earliest tracts on Yoga, contained in Patanjali Yoga sutras, are very informative on this score. Link:http://www.yogajournal.com/history/classical1.html

    The Indian tradition emphasizes on all paths to the truth, i.e., self – realization,{the Nirvana of Buddha} are equally true. There is no concept of the true god and the right path or the “only” path, with eternal damnation awaiting all the rest, in the Indian religious traditions.

    This schism which you have pointed out between religion and spirituality is more relevant to the followers of monotheistic religions who want to jettison the dogma contained in their traditions and move towards values embodied in the Indian tradition.

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  9. Pankaj,

    Well you have snatched the words from my mouth.
    Let me add this

    1) This schism is just a result of dualism POV in the aristotlian sense.
    2) Making distinction between spirituality and religion is weasel wording.
    Either accept God or reject the notion, no in between. In that respect Libertarians are better.

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