I signed up to row
, just because it's something you can't go to Cambridge and not
do. I realized that it's a perfect analogy for the British Empire, and European success in general. The Duke of Wellington (apocryphally) commented that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and later they said Bismarck beat Napoleon III because of Prussian schoolmasters. But couldn't you also say the British Empire was won on the Cam and whatever river it is they row on in The Other Place
The point of University rowing is that they take eight people who have no experience, and build them into a team, directed by a coxwain. Because the rowers face backward, only the cox knows where you're going--but in order to get anywhere, all eight rowers have to do exactly what the cox says.
This is how European armies beat their rivals--disciplined lines of musketeers, keeping order in the face of enemy fire until ordered to shoot by their commander. Total obedience, total trust in the commander's judgment. Often they faced armies (like the, Janissaries, the Zulu, or the Sioux) who were stronger and more skillful individually--and sometimes even better armed--but who didn't have the same coordination and obedience--and that made all the difference. So Europeans conquered the world, often despite tremendous numerical inferiority (eg Zenta
; Rorke's Drift
Of course, this obedience was based on brutal discipline,
but by World War I the British were able to switch
from external punishment to internal motivation--patriotism--as a way to keep their armies in line. Other armies did the same, to varying extents--probably least for the Russians and Austro-Hungarians, who couldn't play on nationalism. I think this internalization--however much Foucault
might not like it--made possible by the greater social capital present in a more democratic system with greater economic opportunities--has something to do with the fact that the British--unlike the other Powers (examples in France
--didn't suffer a political-military collapse in World War I, when disciplined European warfare was taken to its logical exsanguinary extreme. And of the other countries, which one managed to contain the collapse and survive? France, second only to Britain in democratization, capitalism, and internalized discipline. It's also interesting to note that every country in the world, save England and some of its colonial offspring, suffered a violent change of government in the 20th century.
So it's all about social capital and internalized discipline. And that's the point of rowing: you don't know what you're doing, but you trust the cox does. The boat moves, and maybe you win.