In defence of … Empire

The Muse bids me consider the good, the bad and the necessary forms of power

Two decades ago, the subject of empire, which had long fallen under the pall of apologetic navel-gazing in academia and in political discourse, experienced something of a revival. On Home Counties coffee tables in around 2003 emerged books such as Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World and, a couple of years later, his follow up Colossus: The Rise and Fall of American Empire. Both were made into TV series, leading to rather bitchy comments from my own tutors at Oxford over exactly how much of a sell-out he had become. Ferguson moved on soon to NYU and latterly Harvard, where he continues to be a proponent of sorts, of the imperialist revival.

He was not the only one however. A far more academic book, though still accessible, from a few years later in 2009 was John Darwin’s After Tamerlane, which charted the Asiatic land empires over the period 1400-2000 and took a nuanced view on empires, their existence, longevity and, buried amongst the prose, their benefits. The obvious point being that:

[A] propensity in human communities has been the accumulation of power on an extensive scale: the building of empires. Indeed, the difficulty of forming autonomous states on an ethnic basis, against the gravitational pull of cultural or economic attraction (as well as disparities of military force), has been so great that empire (where different ethnic communities fall under a common ruler) has been the default mode of political organization throughout most of history. Imperial power has usually been the rule of the road.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the process of soul-searching brought on by the foreign policy of George W Bush generated much writing, with 2010 alone producing three prominent volumes in the shape of Empires in World History by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, The Rule of Empires written by Timothy Parsons and Empire for Liberty by Richard H. Immerman; this unsurprisingly coinciding with the accession of Barack Obama, probably the most forthright anti-colonialist (and perhaps anti-British) man to occupy the White House since Grover Cleveland in the 1890s.

However, after that burst of activity, Empire has again experienced decline in the perceptions of the liberal public – not least through the sophistry of race relations which re-emerged through the 2010s, accelerated by Trump’s election, BLM and in my world, the absurdity of movements such as #RhodesMustFall (though I am glad to report that as of this moment, Rhodes’ statue still looks down majestically from its cupola on the High). Iraq and Afghanistan have gone the way many feared; perceived Russian and Chinese aggrandizement continues. ‘Empire’ has not had a good innings. Yet the lessons about why they are good, bad or necessary are still overlooked, and I feel obligated to rehearse them once more.

First, Empires bring peace; and their decline brings conflict. Whilst this may sit in cognitive dissonance with how history is taught today, the reality is that for a majority of peoples governed under imperial structures, lives were more stable under this regime than what they might otherwise have. This is not only empirically true – Spain and North Africa for instance were largely left in peace for three centuries between the Punic Wars and the Crisis of the Third Century, despite not being Roman “heartland” – but also logically. See also China, Byzantium, the British and French empires and even the dysfunctional American equivalent (though as Ferguson says, Americans just aren’t very good at empire). Ethnically-focused nation states must be more prone to friction with neighbours than an empire which is first and foremost self-interested in minimising that friction. No successful empire has ever seen greater violence and destruction in its borders, than its alternatives.

Secondly, Empires bring prosperity. Much like any political system, the proof is in the pudding and there are very few examples of empires which successfully exist for long based only on coercion. Even the Empire in Star Wars, for instance, would have had more adherents than resistance and the Jedi should probably have asked themselves why they were in such a minority for so long – probably because their own scattergun and slightly racist alternative proposition could not even persuade Ewoks, let alone the merchants, professionals and other middle classes of the Empire that their mess was better. Most complaints about empire comes from self-indulgence, and nowhere was this more plainly set to rights than in Monty Python, whose sketch in The Life of Brian was a thinly-veiled lampoon of anti-colonial opinion across Asia and Africa:

Lastly, empires bring diversity. Given the propensity to celebrate everything “D&I” these days, it is worth pausing to think about how much empires, rather than nation-states, and created and sustained true multi-culturalism. Ultimately, empires are agnostic about the culture they carry, and as they expand absorb ever greater amounts of what they oversee. It is notable for instance, the Prime Ministers such as Thatcher and Blair were eminently more parochial than similar bourgeois classes a century earlier, whose relatives would have grown up in India, the Sudan and elsewhere serving as bureaucrats and engineers. Whilst Europe has provided some remedy to this parochialism, it is not complete: since the decline of empires in the 1960s, modern (western) nation states and their governing classes know less about the world around them than ever before, leading to everything from half-baked trade pacts like the WTO to neo-conservative adventures in the Middle East. The borders of empires are soft and porous; the borders of nation states are hard – and with it hardened views on identity and inclusion.

Coming from a family that emigrated under the auspices of Empire from China to India to Britain, I take a personal pride in the system that allowed for this to occur. Britain offered an attractive cultural and civilisational prospect, of course, and its contemporary weakness in this needs addressing; but more importantly it was the infrastructure of empire that served so many millions of people so well, for so long. It gave opportunity, egality, stability to the very poorest in society, at the expense, ironically, of the “home” nation.

Empire is here to stay, not just because of legacy but because its really quite a popular system. The definitions may vary over time, but the principles of expansion and peaceful, productive dominion of a periphery by the centre will remain permanent. A decade ago I argued that we were witnessing the emergence of a new “community of empires”, given the way not only Russia and China, but also India, Brazil and others were run. Some of this has come to pass, others are slow burning. But before we continue to trample the legacy of empires, we should remember why they appealed; since they are an inevitability, perhaps it is better we embrace their positives rather than engage in futile self-flagellation.

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