July 05, 2004 | Graham

An empire in the mind

Gary says that he and I are having an argument about the word “empire”. I’m not sure that either of us has directly used the word in debate against the other, but I take it as being encapsulated in the word “imperialism”.
Gary appears to think that the US is acting in Iraq to extend an empire. In saying this, he has taken the use of the word past “imperial”. I can have an “imperial” bearing, without being an emperor, because the word bears a symbolic meaning. But I cannot run an empire without having one. Some may use the word “empire” symbolically too, but in the current argument I think it makes the word not only useless, but unrepresentative of what it is that Gary is charging.
The US does not run an empire. Its government is restricted to the Union. It does exercise influence beyond the boundaries of that union. Most of what people refer to as US imperialism has to do with the export of US culture and of US political ideals. This cannot properly be described as Imperialism, even though it is a staple of much academic discussion that it is.
Empires have certain characteristics. They consist of a number of separate and distinct semi-autonomous units; and control is centralised and is exercised, if necessary, irrespective of the democratic wills of the people who inhabit the various units. They are a form of governance. There has to be some bilateral relationship between the governed and the governing. All the great empires exhibit these characteristics. Even that most modern of Empires, the British one, fulfilled these conditions in a light-handed way. The Roman Empire fulfilled it in a very heavy-handed way.
So-called US Imperialism lacks both the attributes of governance and force. Neither is it predominantly of the US. The US has no governance relationship with any countries outside the 50 states of the Union. It may have relations, but these are persuasive only, and fall into the category of alliance at best. Allies are not part of an empire. So, it fails the test of empire on both counts.
Insofar as the “imperialism” is to do with culture, it is always voluntarily accepted by the people whom it “subjects”. No-one has ever been compelled to watch Hollywood movies (apart from by their kids) – we like to watch them. Insofar as it has to do with political ideals it is not even uniquely US ideals. Henry Thoreau described the US as being an idea rather than a place. This far away from when the term was coined we lose the sense of the excitement with which the US was viewed as the “New World”. The US is an Enlightenment experiment. It is a real life test tube for the ideals of liberalism, and the ideas which spread from that experiment are not uniquely US ideals, but European ideals as well.
Gary and others refer to “US imperialism” because they want to stigmatise the ideas that have been tested and developed in US culture. They want them to be seen as spreading not because they are good in themselves, not because individuals voluntarily want to adopt them, but because they are a pernicious and aggressive growth on human society.
I dispute the use of the words “Imperial” or “Empire” in this context because using them makes it easy to misrepresent the values that the US stands for and their utility and rightness for all of us.
We live in a “post-colonial” age, which is a term that Marxists like Gary have been quick to use, but it is not one that they really accept. While they say the world is post-colonial, they expect major powers to still behave as though the world were colonial. Gary indulges in academic fundamentalism when he quotes all those texts at me. This is what T.E. Lawrence says, and here is what Rashid Khalid thinks. He might as well say that because this is what Alexander the Great did when he came to Mesopotamia, then that is what the US will do.
These histories can give us insights into what modern powers might do, but they cannot prescribe what they will do – that is absurdly deterministic historicism. Their events arise from the context at the time. That the US has handed governance to the Iraqis and that it is the Iraqis who are, for example, trying Saddam Hussein speaks for itself. The US didn’t come to conquer or to occupy. They are not colonising the country.
Gary’s imperial colonial view doesn’t comprehend that in today’s world, even if a country were given to imperialism, there would be no point in being imperialistic – a modern economy cannot be run on the command basis that an empire requires. We live in a network world. It is striking that it was three of the Anglo-Celtic countries which led this action, but they are not part of any sort of empire in the real sense of the world. They are, however, part of a network, where the nodes share common world views and will act in reaction to what the other nodes do.
Our network is based on our inheritance of a particular way of thinking about human beings and their relationship to each other and the state. These are ideas which have travelled first with the soldiers of the Greek and Roman Empires, and then the empires of the various colonialists of Europe, but while they have been with empire, they have not been of the substance of empire, anymore than the flea is of the substance of the dog.
If there is an “empire” here it is one of the mind, and it is one which has its own unique meaning of “empire” which cannot be used in the sense that Gary is using it because it is an empire based not on imposed governance structures, but on a common humanity.

Posted by Graham at 10:57 pm | Comments Off on An empire in the mind |

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.