Listeners beware. I shall be reading some large chunks of text into the record this afternoon, more than would appear in a more finished published version of a similar paper. I do so because they carry us into a vast and burgeoning world of literature in defense of “empire” and particularly of American empire that many of us on the left are not, for better or worse, in close touch with. And yet this is the kind of literature that provides much of the “culture,” such as it is, for the thinking of many of the decision-makers, especially in the US, that so frighteningly affect all our lives. It is therefore important for us to get a sense of it. Think of me, then, as dispatched into the muck by Leo and Sam to bring back a report to them, to you, on the sentient swamp life deep within the bowels of empire – to carefully mix a metaphor. So hang in there and hear me out: think of it this way: you won’t have to do all this nasty work for yourselves. Also: as we’ll see, contemplating this literature will also make us think of the various levels upon which “Empire” operates: in the realm of political economy certainly but also in the realm of high politics: ideology and self-regard, and political purpose of various stripes. And these do have pertinent effects, ones that cannot be read directly off balance-sheets and statements of profit and loss.
In this latter sense, the paper seeks to take us back to a debate, last term in this seminar (and now immortalized in the most recent issue of my favourite magazine, Relay) between Adam Schachhuber and Tom Keefer, in which Tom was prepared to see the motive of American intervention in Iraq as being economically driven, impelled by capitalism and its needs for oil (“Blood for Oil!”), whereas Adam, while also aware of these dimensions, was uneasy with quite such a strong and rather bald assertion. My paper will deal with this tension, taking as a given that the evolving situation in Iraq has something to do with “the logic of capitalism.” But I will also argue, agreeing with Adam, that, in the detailed working out of the crisis, there have been dimensions (including invasion and the death of tens of thousands of people), that, although clearly “imperial” in effect, are perhaps not quite so straightforwardly and exclusively linked to economic-cum-capitalist (and oil) imperatives as Tom implies; as Adam states, “…the U.S. invasion of Iraq was less a war of economic necessity fought over oil than a war of political opportunity fought over some combination of oil and other, much higher stakes.”
In short, we will have to examine “Empire.” Its definition. Its roots. What makes this particular ball go round? Was there a clue, I asked myself, in the description I read, over Christmas on the back of a video game I was perusing while I waited for my computer to be repaired? The game: “Age of Empires: Golden Edition” from Microsoft and hyped on the box as follows: “Build Your Civilization Into a Flourishing Empire. Grow a thriving market economy. Raise your armies. Forge alliances. Build wonders to stand the test of time. Lead your empire with cunning and might in this award-winning game of real-time strategy and action.” Of course, the game is set firmly in the past: “Rome has fallen and the world is up for grabs. Experience real-time evolution as you lead one of the most powerful civilizations of the Middle Ages to greatness. Decide whether to conquer the world through military might, commerce and diplomacy, or intrigue and regicide. There are many ways to power, but only one will reign supreme.” Only one will reign supreme, I noted! But two further thoughts immediately occurred to me. One: don’t try this at home. The second: “armies,” “alliances,” “intrigue and regicide.” OK. But: “grow a thriving market economy”? in the sixth century A.D.? What, indeed, was the link between a “market economy” and the meaning of “Empire” that the game makers apparently had in mind? And what should it connote for us as we wrestle with the problem of more recent “empires”: how to define them, how to think about them, how to resist them?
Let me merely share some thoughts, then, and seek to profit from any subsequent discussion that may occur. As it happens my own chief scholarly preoccupation is with the emergent European “empires” which began to surface from the 16th century onwards and conquered, over the next several centuries and to their own advantage, most of the rest of the global South. Important for my own purposes of study, of course, is that they colonized much of the South so affected, this leading in turn to a struggle for decolonization in such parts of the global South, not least in southern Africa. In that region, however, a potent combination of backward colonialism (the Portuguese) and white settler assertion (Rhodesia and South Africa) dictated the necessity of a particularly militant, often armed, anti-colonial struggle by he oppressed in order to realize freedom. This outcome I have termed the “Thirty Years War for Southern African Liberation, 1960 to 1990” and this war, its determinations, its dynamics and its aftermath, now comprises my principle research focus.
I will not, however, attempt to canvass that on-going research project here, for my present task is to reflect, more generally on the meaning and, as stated, the roots of empire in recent centuries, up to and including the most obviously existent empire of the present moment (but is it the “Empire” of the United States or of some more general phenomenon, like that favoured for explanation by Negri and Hardt, like “global capitalism”?) This latter kind of distinction we may return to, but for the moment we will ask, instead, where does the drive to latter-day empire, especially North over South, come from in the first place. And let us begin with a quote from J. H. Plumb regarding, precisely, some of the apparent logic behind the “Northern” pursuit and realization of global empire in the shadow of which we still live. As he notes,
One of the great shifts in world power and economic strength took place between 1450 and 1700. Before that time Western Europe had been of little consequence in the affairs of the world: only during the first two centuries after the birth of Christ did it seem likely that an empire, commensurate with that in China, might develop, which would also embrace the Western lands. In the political chaos that the fall of the Roman Empire brought about, the future of Western Europe seemed indeed [bleak]…Yet this capacity to organize war on a quasi-national basis, which was such a marked feature of the later Middle Ages, is a factor of considerable consequence for the rise of Western Europe to a position of world dominion…Artillery and cannon-equipped navies, as well as the defenses they provoked, fortification of ports and strategic cities, required not only the mobilization of greater financial and technical resources by the state, which, in itself, bred far more sophisticated administration than the Western World had previously known, but also necessitated a closer control of its human potential, either by vigorously enforced law or by ideological identification. Only when this process had taken place was a huger expansion on an imperial scale possible…. Of course, this is but one strand in the chaos of causes which led to the world revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, but it is a vital one. European conquest of the world rested ultimately on the sanction of force. In the killing and the slaughter lay the decision. Yet the reasons that led to the combat were complex and varied – greed, religious zeal, curiosity, rivalry, even imitation of others; perhaps the sheer blind biological need of man to colonize the empty spaces, once a geographical barrier had been broken. In the overseas expansion of Spain, France and Great Britain, all these factors, and many more, were closely entwined.
In short, state capacity, cultural ambition, militaristic preoccupation, raison d’etat, begin to emerge in the West even before capitalism as sources of European global reach. At the same time, Marxists have been much more assertive than Plumb chooses to be (he does mention “greed,” of course, and observes of the Dutch that, like the Venetians before them, “trade, not crusade, became the Dutch motto”) in underscoring the material underpinnings of this fact of global conquest by the West, noting the aggressive expansion of capitalism and of capitalists, at various stages of the North Atlantic-centred imperial system’s emergence, in both stimulating and actively manifesting Western imperial intent and practice. Thus, as Marx correctly wrote (Capital Vol 1):
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings were the chief momenta of primitive accumulation…The different moments of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, in more or less chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England….Their methods depend in part of brute force, e.g. the colonial system…Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.
And yet, of the simultaneous importance to the imperial outcome of, following Plumb, culturally-defined propensities, inter-regime rivalries and military-administrative capabilities for conquest, there can also be little doubt. The key challenge for any student of imperialism is, in fact, to balance political economy and political science in an effective and convincing way in order to analyze accurately the balance amongst the various pertinent causes/motivations.
Up to a point, of course, the carefully researched history of imperial expansion at its most concrete sustains Plumb’s emphases. Thus, a locus classicus in my own field remains Robinson and Gallagher’s study of “Africa and the Victorians’ in which political-cum-strategic rivalry and competitive state-craft in the interests of power are seen, time and again, to trump any very straightforward expression of capitalist interest in motivating contestations among European powers in, and for the control of, Africa in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, Ronald Hyam has sought to draw forward such arguments towards the articulation of a more general theory, going so far as to argue as follows:
“Let us agree then that the theory of ‘economic imperialism’ is dead and that there is no further point in trying to discuss British imperial history within the framework it has created. Whatever the motives for British empire and expansion in the nineteenth century, they cannot in the main be ascribed to an ‘economic taproot’ of powerful interests seeking to find markets for ‘their surplus goods and their surplus capital.’”
These words, which I wrote in 1975, provide the theoretical starting-point for the analysis in Britain’s Imperial Century. It does not align itself with any accounts which privilege economic explanations of imperial hegemony, last of all those centred on capitalist interest-groups. Nor does it suppose that the essential impetus can be located solely in one place, whether metropolis or overseas periphery, but argues that it must be sought in the dynamic interaction between the ‘chaotic pluralism’ of private interests and the pragmatic decision-making of prestige-driven high politics. It is important to understand how governments think, and how they try to distance themselves from pressure groups of all kinds. Thus “capitalism,” as F.H. Hinsley explained:
represented not the motivation of the search for power, but was part of the circumstances and conditions that shaped the objectives which the search for power, itself a more basic thing, embraced. In the nineteenth century…the expansion of territory and…the seizure of colonies [was] a natural, not to say, unavoidable, objective of the basic urge to power. Imperialism in the nineteenth century was not the necessary outcome of capitalism but the natural expression of power in the conditions of the time.
In Britain’s Imperial Century the government is seen as acting under the imperatives of its own understanding of the use of power - “itself a more basic thing” – in its overseas policies. What earlier editions of [my] book lacked, perhaps, was a overarching theory of why imperatives of power were so fundamental. What such a theory might now be, however, is a lot clearer. Since the late 1970s, at the same time as imperial studies has been increasingly influenced by cultural post-modernism, an equally significant, if less remarked upon, historical development has been taking place, and that is the re-emergence of the historical discourse of ‘geo-politics.’ Historians of the Cold war quickly saw it was an indispensable theoretical concept for them. And so it is too for historians of empire.
To repeat, the fact is that there is a lack of precise fit between immediate economic motive and, if you like, geo-political determination, not to mention diverse ideological preoccupations, driving particular imperial activities. Hyam, building, as noted, on a classic work by Robinson and Gallagher concerning the motives of British incursion into Africa, Egypt and beyond in the latter part of the nineteenth century, is, almost gleefully, expanding the theoretical referent beyond, and even at the expense of, the “theory of economic imperialism.”
A great deal of debate continues to swirl around this issue. Yet, to my mind, it is also crucial to note that there is also a vital link missing in such arguments. What, it might well be asked, makes the various imperial players real “players” in the first place? As noted, it has a great deal to do with the surge forward (and outward) that capitalist development gave them, even if the complexities of imperialist motive remain substantial – for it is capitalist development and capitalist ambition that really made them serious imperialist protagonists in the long run and helped lead them to make world-wide calculations of the sort which could even, upon occasion, make various moves in Africa, say, appear as ones of mere tactics.
Ironically, Niall Ferguson, a student of British imperialism, one of the authors I’ll highlight here and also, currently, one of the great quasi-academic apologists of present-day American imperialism – although he worries that the latter is not ruthless and determined enough (see below) – has no difficulty in discerning the coarse economic motives of western imperialism’s initial conquest of the world. By the nineteenth century, however, and in the heyday of Britain’s world-wide hegemony, imperialism has begun increasingly to become, for Ferguson, even more self-evidently benign - quite apart from its virtues of having introduced, however much sometimes painfully, the rest of the world into the unquestioned wonders of an emergent capitalist system and of having brought to the Global South, by virtue of imperial control (either by colonial or “informal” means), the system’s long term benefits. For this control also meant, especially as the nineteenth century rolled round, a wide range of distinct economic and political benisons for the colonized (says Ferguson):
In truth, the imperial legacy has shaped the modern world so profoundly that we almost take it for granted. Without the spread of Britain around the world, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established in so many different economies around the world. Those empires that adopted alternative models – the Russian and the Chinese – imposed incalculable misery on their subject people. Without the influence of British imperial rule, it is hard to believe that the institutions of parliamentary democracy would have been adopted by the majority of states in the world, as they are today. India, the world’s largest democracy, owes more than it is fashionable to acknowledge to British rule. Its elite schools, its universities, its civil service, its army, its press and its parliamentary system all still have discernibly British models. Finally, there is the English language itself, perhaps the most important single export of the last 300 years.
…[T]he nineteenth century Empire pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas. Though it fought many small wars, the empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. (pp. 303-4)
Unfortunately, as an historian, Ferguson’s substantive claims to our attention are not so very great; indeed, such as they are, they have been well handled by Vivek Chibber in an excellent review, entitled with appropriate irony, “The Good Empire” in which, among other things, Chibber demonstrates that Ferguson’s romantic picture of the benign nature of latter-day British presence in India and Africa is almost entirely mistaken: Indeed, Ferguson, he notes, “seems almost clueless about [the] legacy,” not to mention silent about the realities, in the Victorian era, of such things as “perhaps the worst famines in Indian history; [Ferguson’s] is not, in short, an analysis of empires past and present, but empire’s self-image – buffed and manicured.” Nonetheless, Ferguson’s is a voice that has become much-noted, politely reviewed and widely cited. Moreover, he is especially active (in his latest book, Colossus, for example) in pressing upon the Americans, for present-day consumption, the British past imperial practice as exemplifying the very role the US must/should now play.
As noted, Ferguson’s argument, further extended in a subsequent book, has something to do with the virtues of ensuring political order and, eventually, realizing democracy; this is what makes him a happy imperialist, after all:
Unlike the majority of European writers who have written on this subject, I am fundamentally in favor of empire. Indeed, I believe that empire is more necessary in the twenty-first century than ever before. The threats we face are not in themselves new ones. But advances in technology make them more dangerous than ever before…What is required is an agency capable of intervening in the affairs of such states to contain epidemics, depose tyrants, end local wars and eradicate terrorist organizations. This is the self-interested argument for empire. But there is also a complementary altruistic argument. (p. 24)
A happy liberal imperialist, don’t you know: here’s Ferguson again.
In November 2002 The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, told the New Statesman magazine: “I’m not a liberal imperialist. There’s a lot wrong with liberalism, with a capital L, although I am a liberal with a small L. and there’s a lot wrong with imperialism. A lot of problems we are having to deal with now are a consequence of our colonial past.” Central to my argument is that there is such a thing as liberal imperialism and that on balance it was a good thing. (pp.197-8)
Liberal? Make no mistake: whatever else it may entail, Ferguson also sees this “order” that is brought to the “Global South” as capitalist order. Moreover, and here is the crucial claim (albeit one more asserted than proven), this “freedom” in politics is inextricably linked with “freedom” in the market place, such that they are, in effect and for Ferguson, one and the same thing:
There are those who would insist that an empire is by definition incapable of playing such a role; in their eyes, all empires are exploitative in character. Yet there can – and has been – such a thing as a liberal empire, one that enhances its own security and prosperity precisely by providing the rest of the world with generally beneficial public goods: not only economic freedom, but also the institutions necessary for markets to flourish. (pp. 24-5)
Note, too, that Ferguson in this and other writing wants to make certain that the positive lessons of British imperialism are not lost on US policy-makers and public. In fact, while he has been buoyed up by initial developments in Iraq he begins to despair as to the current prospect of the Americans’ creating and maintaining an empire, however meritorious an undertaking that can be under “democratic” and ‘capitalist” auspices; it is no very easy undertaking and Ferguson is seriously worried that the United States is just not up to the task:
Far from retreating like some giant snail behind an electronic shell, the United States should be devoting a larger percentage of its vast resources to making the world safe for capitalism and democracy. This book has tried to show that, like free trade, these are not naturally occurring, but require strong institutional foundations of law and order. The proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary - as in Germany or Japan in 1945 - by military force. There is no economic argument against such a policy, since it would not be prohibitively costly. Even if the Kennedy thesis is right, imposing democracy on the world’s rogue states would not push the U.S. defence budget above 5 percent of GDP. There is also an economic argument for doing so, as establishing the rule of law in countries like Iraq would pay a long-term dividend as their trade revived and expanded…[But] perhaps that is the biggest disappointment in the twenty-first century: that the leaders with the economic resources to make the world a better place lack the guts to do it.
This latter sentence is worth scanning, no doubt (although see the accompanying footnote  for Ferguson’s own more recent amendments to it). But note, in any case, that Ferguson’s writing is merely the tip of the iceberg of a flood of contemporary texts on the virtues, indeed necessity, of empire. Most cruelly economistic (and even more overtly and self-consciously ‘capitalist” in intent) is Berkeley’s Deepak Lal, in his In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order (2004), where he also revels in the “necessity” of empire. Thus Lal is so committed to the unfettered expansion of the global market-place that he feels the United States owes it, literally, to everybody to act to ensure that “marketplace’s hegemony, along with all the other good things attendant upon such a market”:
If it is unfeasible or undesirable for the American imperium to create an international moral order, what goals should it subserve…[G]iven the costs of maintaining a territorial empire, the first of the post-Industrial Revolution empires – the British – always preferred to keep the “barbarians” at bay though indirect rather than direct control of territory. It was, as Jack Gallagher and Robert Robinson labeled it “an empire of free trade.” Its purpose was to spread its gentlemanly capitalism around the world. Today, even more so, the “trading state” is increasingly seen as the way to prosperity.
But for these trading states to operate, someone needs to maintain the channels of commerce free of pirate and predators. The British Empire provided this global public good through its Royal Navy – the “gunboats and gurkhas” – in its informal empire and by direct rule in its formal empire. This British Pax was an essential element in the process of globalization that brought modernization to many parts of the world…As the reluctant successor to this British Pax, the major objective of the American imperium, as the Bush doctrine explicitly recognizes, is to maintain the Pax necessary for globalization. The war on terror can be seen as merely an extension of this task…[Yet] the creation of true market economies in the countries of Islam, which involves the extension of civil and economic liberties in the Muslim world is more likely to succeed in controlling this [terrorist] virus than the demands to convert them into democracies. The essential purpose of the American imperium must therefore be, as it was for the British, to provide the global order required for the extension of the liberties promoted by globalization. (p. 210-11)
In sum, “the United States is indubitably an empire”:
It is an empire that has taken over from the British the burden of maintaining a Pax to allow free trade and commerce to flourish. This Pax brings mutual gains. Given the well-known human tendency to free ride, the United State like Britain in the nineteenth century has borne much of the costs of providing this global public good, not because of altruism but because the mutual gains from a global liberal economic order benefit America and foster its economic well-being. It has not in this promotion of globalization or global capitalism – as some would derogatively label it – yet been forced to take direct control over areas which have fallen into the black hole of domestic disorder, as was the case, for instance, with the British takeover from the crumbling Moghul empire in the eighteenth century. (p. 63)
Hasn’t happened yet? Merely something to look forward to, perhaps.
Even more conservative if anything, even more hard-boiled, is Max Boot in his The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power:
Contrary to the dream of some economic determinists, capitalism and freedom do not spread inexorably on their own [!]. The nineteenth-century free trade system was protected and expanded by the Royal Navy. The only power capable of playing a comparable role today is the United States of America. (p. 349)
Recall too, however, that
[M]any of the steps Britain took, such as stamping out the slave trade or the murderous thug cult in India, were hard to justify on a narrow calculus of self-interest. It acted simply out of a sense that it was the right thing to do. It is doubtful that American leaders can resist the call for similar humanitarian interventions when the public back home knows far more about the horrors being perpetrated in the far corners of the world than it did in the Victorian era. And why should America not “do something,” assuming the cost of action is not too high? Why not use some of the awesome power of the U.S. government to help the downtrodden of the world, just as it used to help the needy at home. (pp. 349-50]
Heaven help “the downtrodden of the world” you say: spare them, one might even shout out, the protection of “the sheriff.” For that’s the title, The Sheriff, of Colin S. Gray’s own recent contribution, of similar provenance, to the burgeoning literature that seeks to rationalize contemporary empire. You guessed it: the nominee for global “sheriff” is none other than the United States (the book’s sub-title is, America’s Defense of the New World Order), summoned forward as global guarantor to defend “democracy” and the “openness” of “the global market-place” – “self-appointed” for the role, in fact - with again a discreet silence as to any negative economic realities that might follow for those safe-guarded by the global imperial hegemony of the advanced capitalist north. For the fundamental premises of the argument are clear: “World order is neither self-enforcing, nor is it comprehensively enforceable. Nonetheless every such “order” requires a sheriff, or some other agent of discipline (p. 3).”
[Unfortunately, however,] there is no hidden hand of history commanded to ensure that only commercially minded popular democracies shall inherit the mantle of preponderant power. It was never probable, but that power at century’s close might have been Nazi Germany or the USSR. Fortunately, chance favoured civilizational merit for once and the only candidate for sheriff today is the United States (p. 5)….I prefer to think of the United States as the sheriff of the current world order, for reasons both of cultural fit of concept and of tolerable accuracy. Naturally, this American role is largely self-appointed [although] because world politics comprises a distinctly immature political system, we have to be somewhat relaxed about some of the legal niceties. [Also] sheriff is, of course, a metaphor. By its use I mean to argue that the United States will act on behalf of others, as well as itself, undertaking some of the tough jobs of international security that no other agent or agency is competent to perform (p. 7).
[Moreover,] if America is to play the sheriff’s role, as it ought, certainly as world order requires, the country will need to understand that the country cannot limit its military initiatives strictly to cases of clear and present danger. The sheriff cannot always prudently delay taking actions until crimes against the world order are actually committed. Even President Bush’s new-sounding doctrine of preemption is inadequate, because to shoot first at the last possible moment – the strict meaning of preemption – could be far too hazardous when adversaries are armed with WMD. What the United States will have to develop is a grand strategy of preventive action…As many commentators have hastened to point out, a strategy of preemption or prevention will either be on, or more often over, the line of what passes for legality in the jungle of international politics (p. 25).
The mind spins as one reads such self-righteous books, all the more so when one senses that it is actually some such “logic” which (pace Gray) now drives the Bush administration and its apologists.
Meanwhile, closer to home there is a similarly assenting voice of note, albeit one is somewhat less vocal about how the world might best be knocked into line with “what is good for it.” Indeed the editorial writer of a significant editorial in Toronto’s Globe and Mail (entitled “Fukuyama was right: We’ve come a long way”), one that greeted 2004 running down two whole columns on the left side of the editorial page, seems confident that the new order of “democracy” and “free markets” is merely pulling everyone, everywhere, towards it. True, the Globe acknowledges (with Fukuyama) that “bad people” will not “stop challenging the liberal democratic order that [is] developing.” Still,
You don’t have to be a Pollyanna to see that, for all its troubles, the world is a becoming a safe, freer, better place. Consolidating and spreading the new liberal order that Mr. Fukuyama identified in 1989 is the major project of the 21st century. Despite the undoubted progress of recent years, there are perils aplenty – AIDS, weapons of mass destruction, mass terrorism, rogue nations. But Mr. Fukuyama’s essential point remains true. After a 20th century in which ideologies and systems of economic and political organization competed and collided, one system triumphed. The combination of democracy and free markets is the best system people have devised for liberty and prosperity, delivering undreamed-of progress to those parts of the world lucky enough to enjoy them. Now, let’s get on with spreading the Fukuyama formula to those who don’t.
So let’s just “get on with spreading the Fukuyama formula to those who don’t”: a formulation worth contemplating in and of itself (although the Globe doesn’t really do so). But looking back over the range of citations we can immediately see that more than one thing is being talked about at once, albeit things that can be and are quite easily collapsed within a single imperial vision these days. There are, for example, certain global situations that are beyond easy repair and that, in human terms, cry out for redress, a redress that, it sometimes seems, can only be brought from “outside”: the Balkans, Somalia (or so it appeared) and Rwanda.
What is outside? Well, the so-called global community. The United Nations? (But was it really tried, in Rwanda say?) And who has the weapons to make good things happen? The United States. But isn’t the latter a global power with ambitions, particularly economic ambitions, of its own. No problem. We have seen Ferguson’s answer. The “free market” is merely folded into the panoply of “good things” that afflicted nations need more of, although this is self-evidently true for some analysts more centrally than others, particularly centrally, as we have seen for Deepak Lal. So for him, as for Ferguson: “freedom,” “free market,” full stop, end of story. No sense whatsoever, as someone on the left might insist, that “force de market” is at least as arrogant and overbearing – as determinant and authoritarian vis-a-vis ordinary people and therefore as indefensible – as “force de main.” In short, in most essentials, the “free market,” especially on a global scale, is an arena for the exercise of sheer power and the fact that it is not so seen and so critiqued remains one of the greatest of scams of the entire capitalist era. For the fact is that it is virtually impossible to have a meaningful debate about contemporary “empire” without sharing such a critical premise.
But we can sense another problem here too, one that makes things just a little more complicated, one whose shadows are visible even on the left. What is one to make of cases – Kosovo, Rwanda, or, as the Globe and Mail, noted a couple of weeks ago, northern Uganda (in an editorial entitled “To intervene in Uganda”). What’s the problem? Perhaps we can make it more explicit by turning our attention to a final, and closely-related theorist in the ranks of liberal apologists for empire, our next Liberal leader/prime-minister-in-waiting (on the Trudeau model of the “intellectual’s” ascent to power as we have been occasionally told), Michael Ignatieff. The premises of his defense of “Empire Lite” are exactly the same as Ferguson’s, it would appear, although he seems to feel no compulsion, unlike Ferguson and others we have cited, to argue strenuously the economic case for benign imperialism. His main concern, after all, is more self-evidently political realities: the threat of sub-nationalisms, the murderous ways of authoritarian rulers. The roots of his position are to be traced in a brace of earlier books - Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (1993), The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (1998) and Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (2000), concluding of the sometime “necessity of war in defense of human rights” that, for example,
The conflict in Kosovo was radical and unbridgeable: between a state bent on maintaining control of a territory by any means whatever and an ethnic minority determined to fight for self-determination. Central commitments of the world since Auschwitz, since the Universal Declaration of Human rights – that states do not have the right to massacre their citizens – would have meant nothing if we [!?] were not prepared to use force in their defense. We should be prepared to do so in the future, and with determination. War must always be the very last instrument of policy – but when the sword is raised, it must be used to strike decisively, for only decisive force yields the results which can justify its use in the first place.
Here his argument is of a piece with that of the emergent phalanx of quasi-Fergusons that have identified themselves increasingly openly and unapologetically as advocates of the imperialist undertakings of some western “we” - NATO, say, the European Union, or, especially, the United States - for ostensibly humanitarian reasons. Witness, in addition to Ignatieff, the likes of William Pfaff who, several years ago argued vigorously in Foreign Affairs (and along lines similar to those of Ignatieff), not of Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq but of Africa, for “A New Colonialism, ” stating firmly - with the best intentions in the world! - why “Europe Must Go Back Into Africa.” Of course, Pfaff does not make much of the venomous grip of global capitalism and continuing western hegemony upon Africa as possibly qualifying his argument – though I myself have recently found it impossible to start a book on the current state of Africa without highlighting this point in the very first chapter! But this is where political science begins to overlap awkwardly with political economy, not erasing the distinction certainly but undoubtedly troubling it.
What, then, of the political economy of “benign imperialism”? Perhaps for Pfaff but definitely for Ignatieff, there are also certain underlying economic premises to his argument, ones that no doubt made it easier for him to find his way to supporting Bush’s adventures in Iraq - although such premises are mainly taken for granted, not actually argued for entirely clearly, as part of his broader case for humanitarian empire. Thus, in his 2004 book The Lesser Evil, for example, he observes - without any discussion of the point and without defining “liberal democracy” (an unspecified political good) – that “liberal democracy depends upon the existence of free capitalist markets.” And in Empire Lite (2003) there is a somewhat more extended apologia for Empire, even, apparently, in its economic manifestations. Ignatieff admits, of course, that “the moral premises of anti-imperialist struggle [in the previous] century – all people should be equal and all people should rule themselves – are not wrong.” But history, Ignatieff feels forced to tell us, “is not a morality play.” (“It is at least ironic,” he suggests here, “that liberal believers [in the ideas of the anti-colonial struggles]– someone like me, for example – can end up supporting the creation of a new humanitarian empire, a new form of colonial tutelage for the peoples of Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.”)
For while, he notes, “the age of empire ought to have been succeeded by an age of independent, equal and self-governing nation states…[i]n reality it has been succeeded by an age of ethnic cleansing and state failure.”(p. 123) This, he argues, is “the context in which empire has made its return. Empire is an attempted solution to the crisis of state order that has followed two botched decolonizations: the Soviet exit from Europe and the European exit from Asia and Africa.”(p. 123). Indeed
there is enough of a failure to create an on-going crisis of order in a globalised world. For thirty years after decolonization this crisis has grown upon us, and all the rich Western world has done is to pretend that it is not occurring. First we believed in the theology of development only to see development founder on corruption and the incapacity of weak state structures to develop honest government and equitable programmes of growth [sic]. Then we told ourselves globalization itself – capitalism’s sheer voracious dynamism – would bring prosperity and order in its wake. (p. 124)
markets alone cannot create order: markets require order if they are to function efficiently, and the only reliable provider of order – law, procedure, safety and security – is the state. A globalised economy cannot function without this structure of authority and coercive power and where it breaks down markets break down, and crime, chaos and terror take place in the rotten, unpoliced interstices. Prophets of the benefits of global market integration have been foolish enough to envisage a future world that does away with the need for the state. (p. 124)
And yet it is the new global context – of corruption and failed states - that
helps to explain why the new imperial project – consolidating zones of stability in areas of vital national interest [!] – is proving necessary. The imperial project is much larger than Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. Nothing less than the reconstitution of a global order of stable nation states is required…(p. 125) Indeed, an empire that created stable, democratic institutions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan and then left would be doing something creditable, useful to American and European interests to be sure, but useful to the local population…(p. 25) An imperial invasion of Iraq that replaced a hostile tyrant with a friendly one would be unworthy of support. At the moment these imperial exercises hang in the balance: no one actually knows whether they will work, whether Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and now Iraq will ever achieve sustained democratic self-government. That is the test, and the critics of imperial methods need to understand that self-government in these places is unattainable without some exercise of imperial power. The central paradox, true of Japan and Germany in 1945, and true today, is that imperialism has become a precondition for democracy. The Iraqi opposition will never overcome tyranny without an American and British military victory, followed by a long occupation. The Afghan people will never overcome the rule of the warlords and consolidate their own form of peaceful self-rule without a preliminary military occupation by foreign powers. (pp. 23-4, emphases added)
And so Ignatieff concludes: “To be sure the form of empire that is compatible with democracy is temporary empire, but it is empire nonetheless.” Order - “ the real principle is imperial: the maintenance or order over barbarian threat” - and democracy, then, are key, more worthy of emphasis than markets apparently, although, as we have seen, these too have their place. In short, Ignatieff emphasizes, there is a very strong case to be made for “humanitarian empire,” for “temporary imperial rule, to provide the force and will necessary to bring order out of chaos,” which must be used “to keep those zones free of external interference and aggression as well as internal civil war.“
Of course, he also argues, somewhat paradoxically, that it must be “the local political authorities who rule in fact as well as name” and who must, in any case, “be ‘empowered’ as soon as the American imperial forces have restored order and the European humanitarians have rebuilt the roads, schools and houses”. But, to repeat, “the real principle is imperial: the maintenance of order over barbarian threat.” Nor can this merely be “Empire Lite,” which, done on the cheap, “neither provides a stable long-term guarantee, nor creates the conditions under which local leadership takes over” (takes over, in the name of democracy and the “free market” presumably). In fact, Ignatieff seems to be putting, albeit more politely, the same question as did Ferguson: does the US, Ignatieff’s obvious nominee for the imperial role, really “have the guts to do” what is necessary and to do it right.
For make no mistake: of the privileged role he continues to define for the good-hearted sheriff of the golden West, the United States, in setting things right, there should be no confusion. Of course, Ignatieff has, more recently, had some doubts, although less, to be clear, as to whether the US has the “guts” for the role it should play than whether the rest of the world does. After all, with all the current carping about the American role,
…the days when the United States intervenes as the servant of the international community may be well and truly over. When it intervenes in future, it will very likely go it alone and will do it essentially for itself.
If this is the new world order, it will have costs that the rest of the world will have to accept: fewer humanitarian interventions on behalf of starving and massacred people in the rest of the world, fewer guarantees of other people’s security against threat and invasion. Why bother with rescue and protection if you have to do everything alone? Why bother maintaining a multilateral order – of free trade, open markets and common defense – if your allies only use it to tie Gulliver down with leading strings.”
He is thus ultimately led, faute de mieux, to a tentative embracing of multi-lateral interventions. True, “United Nations members will have to decide what the organization is actually for: to defend sovereignty at all costs, in which case it ends up defending tyranny and terror – and invites a superpower simply to go its own way, or to defend human rights, in which case it will have to rewrite its own rules for authorizing the use of force.” Instead, Ignatieff envisages that “the United States [could] propose some new collective “rules for intervention” to ‘the international community.” In fact, “new rules for intervention, proposed by the United States and abided by it, would end the canard that the United States, not its enemies, is the rogue state. A new charter on intervention would put America back where it belongs, as the leader of the international community, instead of a deeply resented behemoth lurking offstage” In fact,
I would suggest that there a five clear cases when the United States could authorize a state to intervene: when, as in Rwanda or Bosnia, ethnic cleansing and mass killing threaten large numbers of civilians and a state is unwilling or unable or unwilling to stop it; when, as in Haiti, democracy is overthrown and people inside a state call for help to restore a freely elected government; when, as in Iraq, North Korea and possibly Iran, a state violates the non-proliferation protocols regarding the acquisition of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons; when, as in Afghanistan, states fail to stop terrorists on their soil from launching attacks on other states; and, finally, when in Kuwait, states are victims of aggression and call for help. These would be the cases when intervention by force could be authorized by majority vote on the Security Council.
I suppose we should feel mildly relieved that neither Venezuela nor Bolivia are on this list. Indeed, we should also be aware that, beneath the verbiage and the willful trivializing of the deadly serious business of the political economy of capitalist imperialism, there are some difficult questions here – even if they are ones that Ignatieff masks for us by taking the bona fides of Western capitalist centres much more seriously than we might feel any inclination to do. What kind of intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, or in Rwanda where a million people died of genocide, was warranted? And by whom? More, perhaps, than Clinton was willing to risk, but can we be perfectly sanguine and, at least retrospectively, enthusiastic about the prospect of his having done more, as some honest protagonists of an “honourable” and “humanitarian” outcome in Rwanda are inclined to argue for. Such a question need, in no way, deflect us from grasping the arbitrariness and ghastliness of Bush’s intervention in Iraq, of course, but it is worth noting that it is a logic that carried Ignatieff himself - blissfully ignoring the imperial economic, and hence the (at the very least) mixed political motivations of the United States - from Kosovo to Rwanda to Afghanistan to Iraq as a fellow traveler of militarism.
But even if, in an effort to evade the logic of empire that Ferguson and Ignatieff seem, in the end, comfortable with, we were to answer the “by whom?” question by adding the EU and especially the UN into the various relevant equations of “humanitarian intervention” and the loops of rationalization and acceptability what would we come up with: we’d better think very carefully about this if we are to validate something more than the grossly imbalanced world which we now have, where the strong make and enforce the rules, occasionally with benign intent but most often with western self-esteem (even racism) and capitalist-logic front and centre? And what do we have to offer instead of Empire, if not in Iraq (although even there we must be careful not to trivialize the horrors of Hussein’s regime) at least in Rwanda or, to cite one of Ignatieff’s favourite examples, Liberia.
For imperialism/empire (driven by the United States) is a legitimate present-day form of global reformism, that’s Ignatieff’s line. There are those who have come to suspect this scenario in its own terms, even some of those who were once persuaded by it. Take David Rieff’s new book At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention. In it he engages in self-criticism, even feeling moved to reprint in the book an early essay of his entitled “A New Age of Liberal Imperialism?” (enthusiastic, at that time, about such a prospect) built on the premise that the UN, as he demonstrates to his satisfaction, “is incapable of serving as the ultimate arbiter of peace and security in the world. As he then concluded, “the only alternative is force exercised by powerful nation-states,” notably the United States. Well aware, in light of the recent experience in Iraq, of the dangers of this conclusion, Rieff has now come to distance himself from it, however: “But no nation, no matter how good its intentions, has the right, the wisdom or the capacity to act consistently in the world’s interests.” As he concludes the book:
And I have carried home my doubts about the entire project of humanitarian interventionism. Does this mean that I am prepared to consistently oppose them. It does not. I still believe we should have sided with the Bosnians and moved heaven and earth to save the Rwandan Tutsis. But it does mean that I am no longer an interventionist, and, in an age where interventionism is the order of the day both on the human rights left (Darfur) and the neo-conservative right (Iraq, and now perhaps, Iran) that means the future seems very bleak indeed…and growing bleaker by the day.
And what if, in any case, Empire, notably the American Empire, is first and foremost, a protagonist of global counter-revolution on behalf of a parasitic and singularly unpromising (for the poorest of the poor) global capitalism (not, incidentally, a premise entertained, even in passing, by Rieff)? What we have in the end, its mix of elements difficult to parse absolutely accurately, is western/northern cultural, even racist, arrogance, premised upon militarism and the whine of “self-esteem,” sustained, if not driven, by capitalist assertion, and defining an imperial project rationalized, upon occasion, by apparent high moral purpose, at least at the rhetorical level, but so often far shabbier and more grubbily mundane and advantage-seeking in practice.
Are we back with Plumb: “greed, religious zeal, curiosity, rivalry, even imitation of others; perhaps the sheer blind biological need of man to colonize the empty spaces, once a geographical barrier had been broken” – all are here certainly, together with some good old “geo-politics” thrown in and also various humanitarian self-delusions: plus (a big plus) capitalism, the latter defining much of the game and at least in the short-run, one fears, many outcomes. Certainly, however, all of the above do define specific outcomes, the difference, in the short run, between a Clinton foreign policy and a Bush foreign policy (with the latter’s particularly breathtaking contempt for legal constraints, either national or international), differences which some real impact upon all our lives, here and especially “there.” Or the difference between a cool (late) Rieffian riff and a sad Ignatieffian display of distemper, say.
As for me I’ll take, instead of either (Clinton or Bush, Rieff or Ignatieff), revolution and genuine solidarity across borders (not least with and amongst “the wretched of the earth”), anti-capitalist-globalization, a fighting back vis-à-vis American Empire, and that not as part of a mere ‘multitude” but, with any luck, in a more structured, organized and self-conscious way. But is this meaningful any longer? It is easier said than done, certainly. And just where does a Rwanda, say, fit into the equation in the mean-time? In the short-run, who could we, on the left, have hoped to have speak effectively for, say, the one million dead Tutsis and to have helped them to survive, for example? Can anything good come from “outside” in such cases given the present distribution of global power? Must we have made the global revolution before we can really imagine succour for such people? As they say on university examinations, and occasionally elsewhere: discuss.
The following is an extract from Jan Myrdal’s exemplary book from the 1960s, Confessions of a Disloyal European (New York: Vintage, 1969):
is a beautiful town. I have seen the Timurid monuments of Samarkand. But
nowhere a cupola such as that of mausoleum of Gohar Shad, wife of Shah
“Herat would have been a still more beautiful town if the British had not blown up the great Musallah. It had been built on the orders of Gohar Shad by the great architect Quavam ad-Din. The construction was begun in 1417. It was the greatest monument of the Timurid era. It was blown up in 1885. The British needed a clear field for their cannon in the war with Russia that never came.
“Walking over the field, trampling on the debris, crushing decayed tilework with my heels seventy-three years after the dynamiting, I feel a hatred sour as green gall filling my mouth. The queen and tsar are both dead and gone. So are all the generals and merchants, poets,
(Kabul town was ours to take –
Blow the bugle, draw the sword
Kabul town’ll go to hell –
Blow the bugle, draw the sword)
and diplomats. But their work remains. The ugliest, dirtiest, most boastful
and inglorious culture the world has ever had to bear. Their bodies might
be dead, the queens and tsars, but their spirits still march beside us
through the most murderous century in history. But er should not say this.
We should be nice and well behave. Talk about understanding, the modern
world, man, or rather Man.
“I wrote about the Musallah. Not quite as sharp as this. More descriptive. More pacific. And then I found out that I seemed to be the only one who reacted this way. The only European, I mean. The Afghans have felt this way the whole time. And coming back to Kabul in 1961 I met a Norwegian expert who said to me: - ‘It might be true. But you should not write it. You are disloyal to Europe.’
“And I understood why the others did not react. Europeans never react. Except when natives go European and repay some minor atrocities. (By Europeans I mean Europeans all the from the Urals to California.)
“Yes, it was in Herat that I became conscious of being disloyal to Europe. That my values has shifted and that I felt loyalty to Europe to be a crime. It was the German who helped me. The German more than the debris of the Musallah.
“We had been in Herat two days when I met him one afternoon in July 1958. I had been cleaning the carburetor of our car. Thinking about the cold war of 1885. ‘The big game’ as it was called. That war never became a hot one. But waging it cold they managed to dynamite Herat. It seemed like I had heard similar things in my own time.
“Afterwards I sat in the shade of the pines beside the pool in front of the old Herat Hotel drinking green tea. I was hot and sweating. We were going to drive northwards in the morning. I saw him coming. A lean man around forty. Maybe older. First I thought he was an Afghan. He was so dressed. Then he sat down beside me and said in English: -‘You are a European.’
“He spoke English with a slight accent, but it was good public school English: - ‘Good to see a European again. I have been up north these last months. I am a German.’
“I told him I was a Swede. He asked if I spoke German. I did, so we continued in German. He was an officer, he said. Or rather a former officer. He had been a staff officer: - ‘My uncle was on the general staff.’
“Later on that evening he began speaking about the north. He had been up to the border, he said: - I have many friends.
“I could not decide whether he was real or not. A phony spy or a real one. He had notebooks filled with facts. They seemed to contain a full military topography of northern Afghanistan: - ‘I also have got all the Soviet airstrips just across the border,’ he said.
“He talked about his friends in Kabul. He was worried. He did not dare to write to them: - ‘Not even to the embassy, you know. The Afghans check everything. You can’t trust them. You can’t even trust the people. You should never send a letter in this country.’
“He wanted me to carry some letters for him to Kabul. I refused. That surprised him. ‘But I never do,’ I said.
“He was quiet a moment. Then he talked of girls in Berlin. He was a nice chap. An hour later he once more asked me to carry the letters. I was very important to him. But I still refused. ‘Then I will try to reach the border,’ he said. ‘But the Afghans check everything.’
“Then he left. It was now quite dark and the kerosene lamp I had borrowed made a small yellow globe of circling insects in the night. I went to bed and early next morning we started north for the Sabzak Pass.
“When we arrived in Kabul I though about the German. He seemed to be a nice, middle-aged man. A fool maybe. But I disliked the idea of German (if it was German) espionage if it was espionage) in the Afghan north. I thus decided to take the matter up with the Afghan authorities. I told the story of the German at a party. I gave all the details but put the story in the form of an anecdote.
Abdul smiled and said: ‘Oh yes, we know all about him. We did all along. We usually do. That has already been taken care of.’
“Then we both laughed. The American I had been drinking beer with at the International Club stared at me. Then he edged away. He looked as if he had seen a snake.
“I know why. The German has trusted me because I was a European. The American felt that I was a traitor to Europe. As for myself, I understood that I had passed one of the gates to Asia. My loyalty was no longer an unquestioned loyalty to Europe. And I was quite prepared to let the Afghans take care of (whatever that meant) the German who had been collecting military information in their country.”
* * *
No doubt things are a bit more complicated than this, in terms of class, gender and political ideology. Certainly neither Osama bin Laden nor Sadam Hussein is any more admirable a figure than George Bush, as Iraqis know to their horror. And yet, confronted with bomb-torn Baghdad, as badly decimated in our time as Herat in the nineteenth century, it is also difficult to escape the accuracy of Mahatma Ghandhi’s particularly svelte remark, whether it be apocryphal or not. Asked what he thought of “Western Civilization” he replied: “It would be a good idea.” Listen up, Michael Ignatieff: “we” me no “we’s,” please. •
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