This is the fourth in a series of posts about my book, Empires of Vice.
In an earlier post, I mentioned that a key argument in Empires of Vice is that the rise of opium prohibition across Southeast Asia under European rule was shaped by local administrators who constructed official problems. In this post, I seek to elaborate on what I mean by constructing official problems; and why it matters for those interested in theories of state building and symbolic bureaucratic power.
Contrary to presumptions that opium was an “easy” fiscal base for revenue-hungry 19th and 20th century colonial states, my book stresses how difficult it was for the British and French alike to sustain states built on opium revenue collected from excise taxes, largely due to the ambiguity of vice as a regulatory category.
Think of a sort of original sin. During initial moments of territorial conquest in Southeast Asia, European powers began using taxation to regulate opium consumption as a peculiar vice among the colonized, but without clear conceptions about what exactly defined a colonial vice, why it was a fiscal object, let alone what justified the involvement of a foreign state. Yet, administrators on the ground began collecting revenue, regulating people’s behavior, and announcing the legitimacy of the state’s actions. If states usually puzzle before they power—first figuring out who and what they govern; and then trying to mold society into their interpreted reality— the reverse happened for colonial states built on opium. They powered before puzzling. This sort of overreach—of felt sentiments over careful knowledge—became an enduring source of tension that subsequent administrators would struggle to manage.
At first, there were minor issues, annoyances of bureaucratic tasks that came with paperwork, with poor labels or classification templates that didn’t fit reality, counting errors, adjusting policies at the margins and dealing with small unintended consequences. For instance, the British in Burma used a template borrowed from Bengal that used religion to categorize opium consumers, which placed 90% of the population, the Buddhist majority, in a single box, until excise administrators adjusted the uninformative template to separately label Burmese, Chinese, Indian and others. Such was the stuff of everyday opium administration, which accumulated and had large effects over time. Administrators came to see some issues as more troubling than others, and gave official reality to perceived problems through their record keeping. Deep in the underbelly of bureaucracies, a recursive process of defining and solving problems repeated and escalated slowly into shared understandings of large threats relating to opium that were politically actionable. The construction of official problems as such, generated the conditions of possibility for anti-opium reforms, by internally eroding the confidence of those most intimately involved in running the state.
What do such inner workings of Southeast Asia’s opium-entangled colonial states reveal more generally? First, looking beyond the modern state's classic Weberian guise, social scientists are able to see it as a problem-defining and solving entity. We become more attune to when and how states are riddled by inner anxieties, rather than presume the constant hubris and arrogance of monopolizing power. Second, as Charles Tilly famously argued, states often resemble protection rackets, namely, a scheme to produce both danger and at a price, the shield against it. Empires of Vice identifies an administrative mechanism—the construction of official problems—through which states arrogate authority to themselves by defining dangers and threats that justify protection.
In my next post, I’ll share my experience speaking about these aspects of my book’s argument through a transcribed interview with the Asia Experts Forum and a podcast with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.