July 07, 2004 | Unknown

More on Empire

Well if Graham and I were not having an argument about American imperialism, then we are having one now. I say America is an imperial power and he says it is not. Let us go through the arguments in some detail.
To start with I take a position that empires and imperialism are bad. I think Graham shares this position, though he attempts to put up something of half an argument for the British Empire. According to Graham it was “light-handed”. Ok let us make this our first point of disagreement. Was the British Empire as graham describes it? Here I am contented to cite the judgement of a latter day right wing apologist for the British Empire, none other than academic super-star and right wing guru Niall Ferguson. He has this to say:
“Many charges can, of course, be levelled against the British empire. I do not claim, as John Stuart Mill did, that British rule in India was “not only the purest in intention but one of the most beneficent in act ever known to mankind,” nor, as Lord Curzon did, that “the British empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen.” The empire was never so altruistic. In the 18th century the British were indeed as zealous in the acquisition and exploitation of slaves as they were subsequently zealous in trying to stamp slavery out; and for much longer they practiced forms of racial discrimination and segregation that we today consider abhorrent. When imperial authority was challenged — in India in 1857, in Jamaica in 1831 or 1865, in South Africa in 1899 — the British response was brutal. When famine struck — in Ireland in the 1840s, in India in the 1870s — the response was negligent, in some measure positively culpable.” (Ferguson, 2003)
Will Graham now do some reading on the British Empire? Will he then apologise for the use of ‘light-handed’ when the dead are so many? I hope so.
Let me now proceed to another point between us – my use of academic such as Ferguson. Here I am accused of what Graham terms ‘academic fundamentalism’. I am unsure of how to proceed here. I struggled hard to become an academic and to be honest, I am proud of having succeeded in that ambition. I am though not blind to the weaknesses of academics. But we do produce knowledge and structures that can be useful e.g. the internet!
Moreover Ferguson, though a repulsive right winger, is a bright wing winger. To be frank I also find his brand of Nietzschean, neo-Machiavelianism, quite refreshing in its honest avowal that he supported the British Empire and he supports the American Empire. Indeed his whole argument is that Americans should come right out and admit they are an imperial power and get on with the job.
His whole work can be seen as variations on Kipling’s original exhortation to America to take up the white man’s burden. Moreover because he is something of a Nietzschean, he does not have to indulge in denials about the use of violence. This for him is a necessary aspect of the exercise of the will to power; hence his honesty in the quote above.
Besides if we turn anti-academic I do not see how we can proceed in this or any other discussion. The pit of anti-intellectualism awaits us if we go much further down Graham’s path.
So let us assume that my use of Ferguson here is legitimate, and that I have succeeded in throwing some light on the question o fthe light handedness or wotherwise of the British Empire. Now to cut to the chase. What are the characteristics of Empire?
Graham has this to say:
“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.”
I would have thought this was a very accurate description of the reality of Iraq, but I am only a mere academic. Perhaps I am confused about the 160, 000 troops, the presence of American firms seeking the privatisation of Iraqi assets, and the largest embassy in the world headed up by the champion of the Honduran death squads himself none other than John Negroponte. But I forget Graham thinks Iyad Allawi controls Iraq!! May be Graham thinks Allawi represents the “democratic will” of the Iraqi people, and that means that America is not exercising imperial power in Iraq.
I don’t think so, and I bet you Allawi would agree with me. The old CIA asset would probably have a giggle about Graham’s version of realpolitik.
But graham is nothing if not p[ersistent he repeats the crucial argument
“So-called US Imperialism lacks both the attributes of governance and force.”
If I said Mossadeq and Allende, would Graham resist the impulse to call me an academic and instead do some reading? These are two instances and there are many more when a governance emerged which the Americans did not like and they got rid of it by force and installed a governance they liked. This is where I positively like Ferguson. He admits these cases and says bravo, good thing. Graham by contrast characterises American foreign policy “persuasive’. Tell that to the victims of Dan Mitrione, who pioneered the use of electric wires inserted between the teeth. Or maybe Graham could try and flog the “persuasive only’ line in Fallujah or Abu Ghraib.
Graham now goes on to the culture argument. He also accuses me of using the post colonial argument. As a Marxist I would not have a bar of post-colonial theory, but we will let that pass. What of the culture thing? Actually I am not against aspects of American cultural modernity such as the creation of the gay culture. Not at all. But American cultural dominance will possibly destroy Australian creative industries and I am enough of an Australian nationalist to oppose that.
Let me sum up my case. I agree with Niall Ferguson that America is an imperial power. It does use force to establish and control its empire. Governance is exercised though at times in an indirect way. But where necessary this governance is exercised brutally. If Graham denies this then we will have the damn argument out case by bloody case.
Graham makes great play about the voluntary spread of US ideas. Why then does the USA possess the biggest arm ever in the history of the world? For more friendly persuasion? Graham then takes off into an orbit. Where he says this about the Iraq war:
“The US didn’t come to conquer or to occupy. They are not colonising the country. “
Words fail this old academic. No conquest? No occupation?
George Bush scrawls “Let freedom reign” on a note from “Condi” and Graham believes him! If I were to abandon the discourse of academia for a while it would be to tell Graham to get a grip on reality. Iraq was conquered and it is still occupied, despite the charade of the Allawi government.
If we leave the world according to Murdoch and the CNN and actually do some hard academic work we find this in Fersuson’s work:
“…the typical pattern of U.S. intervention [falls[ into a series of stages. So far in Iraq we have gone through the first and second phases—the “impressive initial military success,” followed by “a flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment.” Now we’re heading into phase three, “a strategy of limited war and gradual escalation.” (The subsequent stages you identify are, “domestic disillusionment in the face of protracted and nasty conflict,” “premature democratization,” “the ascendancy of domestic economic considerations,” and finally, “ultimate withdrawal.” (Bures, 2004).
I would argue that this represents a much more realistic interpretation of what is happening in Iraq, and let me repeat that Ferguson is all the way with the USA. I would say though that the Allawi farce brings us into the stage of “premature democratisation” and that we are heading fast for the last two stages. Iraq then will turn out to be an enormous defeat for American imperialism. Ferguson presumably will blame people like Graham who are reluctant to face the realities of imperial power and so undercut the support base which will accept the use of force and the domestic economic costs involved, especially in the areas of health, welfare and education.
For Ferguson it is people like Graham who do not comprehend the world and thus cause the American Empire to ‘under perform’. For Ferguson Graham would be the kind of liberal ‘who like[s] to hug trees, or …[has] a fit if somebody fires a gun in anger’ (Ferguson cited in Bures).
I cannot resist a final contrast. Here is Ferguson getting down and dirty on the subject of oil and the impact this will have on American Foreign Policy
“ But having oil doesn’t necessarily make you powerful—though it certainly can make you rich. Precisely the strategic importance of Middle Eastern oil makes it a safe bet that the United States will seek to increase rather than diminish its influence in the region in the coming years. Not only Iraq but even Saudi Arabia itself—already a worryingly unstable ally and the breeding ground of the Al Qaeda terrorist network—may have to become de facto American protectorates in the foreseeable future, just as Germany and Japan did after World War Two” (Ferguson Cited in Bures).
By contrast with this piece of cynical Realpolitik, we have our Graham saying:
“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.”
Again let me challenge Graham to go to Abu Ghraib and talk of this “common humanity”.
NIALL FERGUSONa, ‘America: an Empire in Denial’ The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Chronicle Review, March 28, 2003, available at http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i29/29b00701.htm, accessed July 7th. 2004.
NIALL FERGUSONb, ‘What is Power?’ Hoover Digest, 2003, No 2, Spring Issue , available at http://www.hooverdigest.org/032/ferguson.html, accessed July 7th. 2004.
Frank Bures, ‘Our Imperial Imperative’, Niall Ferguson, the author of Colossus, laments the emasculation of American imperialism, Atlantic Unbound | May 25, 2004, available at
http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/int2004-05-25.htm, accessed July 7th. 2004.

Posted by Unknown at 6:15 pm | Comments (4) |


  1. Gary, by academic fundamentalism I am not criticising real academic argument, but the sort of argument that says “My bibiliography is longer than your bibliography, and you are wrong, because Bloggs says you are wrong. If you want to know why, go and read Bloggs”.
    There are huge elements of those approaches in this post of yours. The correctness of a proposition doesn’t depend on who says it, but whether it fits the facts or not.
    Apparently your argument is better than mine because Niall Ferguson says so. And while you’re at it you run a whole lot of straw cases of what I’m alleged to believe. It would be news to most that I’m a tree hugger, or have problems with the use of force.
    I’ll do another post, but it would be a good idea if we stuck to arguing a few propositions rather than the whole gamut from a to z

    Comment by Graham Young — July 7, 2004 @ 7:19 pm

  2. Graham,
    the conservatives who helped shape American foreign policy after the end of the Cold War do talk about empire in terms of benevolent hegemony.
    Maybe that would be a good place to start?

    Comment by Gary Sauer-Thompson — July 18, 2004 @ 4:27 pm

  3. Graham,
    I didn’t read the post in terms of big bibliography. It was more in terms of introducing Americans who accept the notion of Empire into the discussion.
    This links to post at public opinion about a book on Empire by Chalmer Johnston, called Sorrows of Empire.
    In case the link fails—it seems to have failed in my link inthe earlier comments—the post is on 22nd Feruary 2004.

    Comment by Gary Sauer-Thompson — July 19, 2004 @ 9:00 pm

  4. Oh hell – I never could keep quiet or huff for long!
    My thanks to Gary for attempting to move this discussion out of the realm of the personal spat. It is a serious issue and we should not be afraid to attempt to move beyond the kind of cliches that clutter public discussion around Iraq.
    On the Debka.com site there is for instance the kind of intellectually tough right wing thinking that I almost admire. Its analysis of the Allawi govt seems realistic to me.
    By contrast here in Oz both sides are tempted to follow the CNN/Fox/Pentagon/Murdoch Press line that the Allawi govt represents a new chance and an end to the occupation etc. Such pap and popaganda is only for the liberals. Right wingers such as the debka.com folk need to be honest and know the world because they cannot afford to take the Arabs lightly.
    For them the Allawi govt is trapped within the Green Zone and its writ does not extend beyond this.
    To say this would be to break a taboo in Australia, which is why, I think, so much Australian commentary on Iraq is worthless. It is just this sort of taboo dominated thinking that prevents most commentators here from using the word Empire.
    I make this criticism from the Left. I loathe all empires. Ferguson by contrast makes it from the right. He is oppposed to liberal taboos on using the word Empire, because it prevents, he thinks, winning over the American population to support the imperial project.
    But we cannot even begin to discuss Ferguson’s ideas if we will not admit the reality of imperial conquest and imperial occupation.

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — July 19, 2004 @ 9:23 pm

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