IN FEBRUARY 1788 EDMUND BURKE OPENED the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the East India Company's first Governor-General, for the crimes that his administration had committed in India with a four-day-long speech before the House of Lords, and London's fashionable society bought tickets as if attending theater. Referred to as ''the greatest public sensation of the seventeen-eighties, ''the impeachment brought more attention than any other contemporary event to the complicated relationships of the British nation-state and its young empire in India and, more broadly, of the principles of civil society and the early modern history of imperialism. Burke's Indian speeches constitute a much longer and more intense engagement with the fundamental question that he believed the French Revolution also posed: would the modern civil society that the late eighteenth century was clearly in the process of shaping subordinate the private interests of commerce to the public virtues of landed wealth, thereby preserving national progress, or would it subordinate property to the unchecked power of capitalism, thereby making the merchant's private ethic the basis of the nation's public life and precipitating national degeneration? While the Reflections on the Revolution in France claim that the civil self is the product of national traditions, Burke's speeches and writings on British India suggest that the civil self is in fact merely a performance that masks degeneracy. Indeed, Burke's performance in the impeachment, with its own exaggerated theatricality, represented the very basis of civil society, sympathy, in terms of a set of unmistakably legible signs. Burke assumed the role of a character easily recognizable to his fashionable audience, the male protagonist of sentimental fiction, unable to control his emotions in the face of women's suffering. His very theatricality suggested that the basis of civil society lies neither in reason nor in historical development, but rather in social mimicry, giving the lie to his own theory of civil progress.
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