The Nature of Empire

Niall Ferguson is arguably the most uneven of our living historians. His The War of the World is perhaps the best one-volume survey of the era of global war that began in a flurry of bullets at Sarajevo in 1914; his The Ascent of Money, by contrast, is little more than an exercise in cheerleading for the same misguided economic notions that are setting the stage right now for an explosion that may well rival the one that followed Sarajevo, and the same divergence can be traced straight through his work. Still, Ferguson’s writing makes an excellent starting place for any attempt to make sense of the phenomenon of empire—though this is something of a backhanded compliment, as his misses illuminate the subject at least as well as his hits.

It would be useful if the same thing were true of the other misunderstandings of empire that jostle one another in the collective conversation of our time. Regrettably, that’s anything but the case. In order to make sense of the impact that the fall of America’s empire is going to have on all our lives in the decades ahead, it’s crucial to understand what empires are, what makes them tick—and what makes them collapse. To do that, hovever, it’s going to be necessary to bundle up a mass of unhelpful assumptions and garbled history, and chuck them into the compost.

We can start with the verbal habit of using empire—or, more exactly, the capitalized abstraction Empire—as what S.I. Hayakawa used to call a snarl word: a content-free verbal noise that’s used to express feelings of hatred and loathing. The language of politics these days consists largely of snarl words. When people on the leftward end of the political spectrum say "fascist" or "Empire," for example, these words mean exactly what "socialist" or "liberal" mean to people on the right—that is, they express the emotional state of the speaker rather than anything relevant about the object under discussion. Behind this common habit is the most disturbing trend in contemporary political life, the replacement of ordinary disagreement with seething rage against a demonized Other on whom all the world’s problems can conveniently be blamed.

In too many cases this sort of thinking is taken to frightening extremes. Consider David Korten’s The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, which manages to be both one of the most popular works in the anti-Empire canon and one of the most profoundly antidemocratic tracts in recent memory. Korten’s argument is based on the theory that certain people—quite explicitly, those who share his background and opinions—belong to a higher "developmental stage" than anyone else, and the world’s problems can only be solved if power is taken away from those who have it now and given to the gifted few. If you want thoughtful analysis of the ideas and motivations of the supposedly less evolved people who hold power nowadays, don’t look for it in Korten’s book; what you’ll find instead is an unusually crude version of the standard left-wing caricature of right-wing thinking.

Empire, in Korten’s book, amounts to the whole of the existing order of society, portrayed in the shrill language of apocalyptic rhetoric—unless the gifted few who have "spiritual consciousness" get the power they ought to have, one gathers, all life on Earth is doomed. It’s interesting to note, though, that exactly how the utopian state of Earth Community will deal with the flurry of planetary crises luridly depicted in the first part of The Great Turning is nowhere detailed. The reader who is able to step back and cast a cold eye on the book’s argument may thus be forgiven for thinking that Earth Community is simply Empire with the ruling class Korten prefers, just as the "emerging values consensus" that guides Earth Community can be hard to distinguish from the ideologies that guide Empire, and so on down the list of inevitable parallels.

The need to sidestep this sort of manipulative rhetoric, it seems to me, makes it urgent to get past the habit of using terms like "empire" as snarl words, and recover their actual meaning as descriptions of specific forms of human political, economic, and social interaction. Getting rid of that initial capital letter, arbitrary as it seems, is one step in the right direction. Just as the younger Bush administration was able to disguise a flurry of dubious motives and justify a misguided rush to war by converting the tangled reality of Muslim resentment and radical militancy into the capitalized abstraction of Terror, too many people on the other side of the political spectrum have covered equally dubious motives and justified a range of unproductive actions by converting the tangled realities of influence, authority, and privilege in modern industrial states into the capitalized abstraction of Empire. The so-called Global War on Terror, of course, turned out to be an expensive flop, and much of what passes for "fighting Empire," though a good deal less costly in blood and money, has not been much more successful.

This post and the ones that follow it, then, will be discussing empire, not Empire, and as soon as we get past some initial questions of definition, they will be discussing specific empires—the one the United States currently maintains, primarily, but also the British empire that preceded it, and a variety of others that cast useful light on its past, its present, and its future. One striking detail, of course, sets today’s American empire apart from most of its predecessors, and that is the curious fact that very few people will publicly admit that America has an empire at all.

This is where Niall Ferguson enters the picture, because he’s one of the notable exceptions. In several books and a flurry of essays, Ferguson has argued that the United States fills exactly the same role in international affairs today that Britain held a century ago, and since nobody then or now finds it especially problematic to talk about the British empire, open discussion of the American empire ought to be an equally straightforward matter. He makes a very solid case that the United States is an imperial power. What makes this all the more interesting is that while most people who talk about American empire these days mean the label as a criticism, Ferguson does not. Quite the contrary, he thinks America’s empire is a good thing, and has publicly urged American politicians to take their imperial role more seriously—in other words, to get out there and lord it over the world in earnest.

Some of what’s behind this quixotic rhetoric is doubtless the spluttering indignation it evokes from liberal pundits—Ferguson has admitted that one of the motives that got him involved in conservative politics in his student days was the fun to be had by baiting the left—but there’s more to his argument than that. He points out that periods when one imperial power dominates any given system of nations tend to be periods of relative peace and stability, while periods that lack such a centralized power tend to be racked by wars and turmoil. It’s a valid point—imperial Britain’s century of world dominion from 1815 to 1914 featured fewer wars in Europe, at least, than any comparable period up to that time, and American dominion since 1945 has imposed even more rigid a peace on that fractious continent—and Ferguson goes on to claim, on the basis of that undoubted fact, that imperial rule is a good thing for everyone involved, ruled as well as rulers.

That last step, though, goes well past what the evidence will support, and a good hard look at the claim will prove revealing. Partly, this shows Ferguson’s tendency—which is of course shared by many of his peers in Britain and the rest of Europe—toward an unthinking Eurocentrism. While Europe was relatively calm between Waterloo and Sarajevo, there were very few years in that interval where the British army wasn’t busy fighting someone somewhere in the world, and the smaller colonial empires other European states acquired by Britain’s permission during those same years were in many cases just as racked with wars. Still, there’s another point that’s even more crucial, which is that peace, stability, and the Victorian British idea of good government for the natives are not necessarily the only goods worth weighing in the balance. By this I don’t mean to bring up such intangibles as freedom and self-determination, though of course they also have a place in any meaningful moral calculus; the issue I have in mind is one of cold hard economics.

A broader view of history may be useful here. The first explorers to venture outwards from Europe into the wider world encountered civilizations that were far wealthier than anything they had known. After returning to Italy from the Far East in 1295, Marco Polo was mocked as "Marco Millions" for an account of China’s vast riches that later travelers found to be largely accurate. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama made the first European voyage around Africa to India in 1497, he and his crew were stunned by the extraordinary prosperity of the Indian society they encountered. When Hern├ín Cortes reached the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitl├ín in 1519, it was easily among the most populous cities on the planet—current estimates range from 200,000 ato 300,000 within the city alone, and another million in the urban region surrounding it—as well as one of the richest. A few centuries later, at the zenith of Europe’s age of empire, China, India, and Mexico ranked among the world’s poorest nations, while England, which had been a soggy backwater on the fringes of Europe mostly known for codfish and wool, was one of its richest.

Plenty of reasons have been advanced for this astonishing reversal, but there are times when the obvious explanation is also the correct one, and this is among them. The point can be made even more clearly by noting a detail I’ve brought up here before—the curious fact that the 5% of humanity that live in the United States of America, until quite recently, used around a quarter of the world’s energy and around a third of its raw materials and industrial product. This remarkably disproportionate share of the world’s wealth didn’t come to us because the rest of the world didn’t want such things, or because the United States manufactured some good or provided some service so desirable to the rest of the world that other nations vied with each other to buy it from us. Quite the contrary; we produced very little in America during much of our empire’s most prosperous period, and the rest of the world’s population is by and large just as interested in energy, raw materials, and industrial product as we are.

It’s considered distinctly impolite to suggest that the real reason behind the disparity is related to the fact that the United States has over 500 military bases on other nations’ territory, and spends on its armed forces every year roughly the same amount as the military budgets of every other nation on Earth put together. Here again, though, the obvious explanation is the correct one. Between 1945 and 2008, the United States was the world’s dominant imperial power, filling the same role in the global political system that Britain filled during its own age of empire, and while that imperial arrangement had plenty of benefits, by and large, they flowed in one direction only.

With this in mind, we can move to a meaningful definition of empire. An empire is an arrangement among nations, backed and usually imposed by military force, that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core. Put more simply, an empire is a wealth pump, a device to enrich one nation at the expense of others. The mechanism of the pump varies from empire to empire and from age to age; the straightforward exaction of tribute that did the job for ancient Egypt, and had another vogue in the time of imperial Spain, has been replaced in most of the more recent empires by somewhat less blatant though equally effective systems of unbalanced exchange. While the mechanism varies, though, the underlying principle does not.

None of this would have raised any eyebrows at all in a discussion of the mechanics of empire, in America or elsewhere, during the late nineteenth century. Such discussions took place, in the mass media of the time as well as in the corridors of power, and it was widely understood that the point to having an empire was precisely that it made your nation rich. That’s why the United States, after a series of bitter public debates we’ll be discussing a little further on in this series of posts, committed itself to the path of empire in the 1890s, and it’s why every nation in western Europe either had or desperately wanted an overseas empire—even Belgium, for heaven’s sake, had its own little vest pocket empire in Africa, and exploited it ruthlessly.

The near-total domination of the world by European empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in conjunction with the popular racism of the time—Kipling’s pompous blather about "the white man’s burden" was embarrassingly typical for its era—has given rise in some circles to the notion that there’s something uniquely European or, more precisely, uniquely white about empire. In reality, of course, the peoples of Europe and the European diaspora were by and large Johnny-come-latelies to the business of empire. Ancient Egypt, as already mentioned, was as creative in this as in so many other of the arts of civilization, and had a thriving empire that extended far south along the Nile and north along the Mediterranean coast.

The great arc of city-states that extended from modern Turkey through the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and the mountains and plateaus further east to the Indus Valley gave rise to dozens of empires at a time when Europe was a patchwork of illiterate tribal societies that still thought bronze was high tech. China had its own ancient and highly successful empire, and half a dozen other east Asian nations copied the Chinese model and pursued their own dreams of imperial expansion and enrichment. Sub-Saharan Africa had at least a dozen great empires, while the Aztecs were only the latest in a long history of Native American empires as splendid and predatory as anything the Old World had to offer. Empire is one of the most common patterns by which nations to relate to one another, and it seems to emerge spontaneously whenever one nation has a sufficient preponderance of power to exploit another. Its emergence sets certain patterns and processes pretty reliably into motion; we’ll be discussing those during the weeks to come.


In other news, I'm delighted to report that my new book The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil is now available for preorder from Scarlet Imprint, in two limited editions. (The paperback and e-book editions will be available for preorder a bit later.) Everything's on track for a release at the upcoming Spring Equinox. Please visit for full details and ordering information!

End of the World of the Week #9

Joachim of Fiore was a medieval monk, but in many ways it’s hard to think of a more thoroughly modern figure. He was born somewhere around 1135 in the Italian province of Calabria, worked for the government of the Kingdom of Sicily for a while, then got religion in 1174 and entered the Benedictine order—yes, that’s the twelfth-century equivalent of leaving your corporate job and ending up in a New Age ashram in Sedona. In 1184, while on his way to Rome on monastery business, he stopped at an abbey in Casamari, and that’s where he suddenly metamorphosed from common or garden variety mystic seeker to full-blown medieval guru.

While he was at Casamari, to be precise, he had a series of visions that revealed to him the secret meaning of the Book of Revelations and the entire shape of the world’s history. The short form was that all of time was divided into three parts, which related to the three persons of the Christian trinity. The Age of the Father ran from the creation of the world to the advent of Jesus, and was the age of law; the Age of the Son ran from there to the downfall of Antichrist, which either Joachim or his students—nobody’s quite sure which—expected in the year 1260, and was the age of grace; the final Age of the Holy Spirit, the blissful age of love and liberty, ran from then on until the end of the world. Thus the various cataclysms of the Book of Revelations, in Joachim’s thought, were simply rough patches on the road to paradise on earth.

Joachim’s good news proved to be highly popular, and made him internationally famous. When King Richard the Lionheart was on his way to the Third Crusade, he made time to stop by Joachim’s monastery and ask for a prophecy about the upcoming war with the Saracens; Joachim obligingly did the necessary calculations, and told the king that the Crusade would be a huge success and Jerusalem would be recaptured by the Christians; he was wrong, but that did nothing to dent his reputation. He went to his death in 1202 serenely convinced that the wonderful Age of the Holy Spirit was going to arrive on schedule in not much over half a century. Instead, his views were condemned as heretical by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and when 1260 rolled around, nothing out of the ordinary happened at all.

—story from Apocalypse Not