Empires and imperialism have been not insignificant in human
history. Indeed, most of the people who ever walked the Earth did so as
citizens of Empires, self-avowed or otherwise. Should this be so? Are
Empires "A Good Thing"?|
To answer these questions, we need firstly to look at what empires are. For it may be that, like many another politico-historical terms, "empire" covers a variety of actually rather distinct phenomena. To do that, we need to consider more than simply societies that called themselves "Empires". If there is one less reliable use of a politico- historical term than its application to a society by political scientists and historians, it is its application by a society, or its rulers, to itself, as witness the official self-description of the semi- divine (and apparently now to be hereditary) autocracy of North Korea, in which all power resided with Kim & Son (trading as "Great Leader"and "Dear Leader", respectively, the latter having now seemingly inherited Daddy's job) as a "Peoples' Democracy". One wonders what the Athenian demos would have made of that! Or, for that matter, of the nominally elective media-manipulated oligarchy of institutionalised rival factions of internationalist Capitalists which also calls itself "democracy" in many Western states. Let alone bizarre oxymoronic Newspeak such as "peoples' democratic dictatorship" and so on.
Thus also did the term "Empire" - from the Latin imperium- mean very different things to very different people throughout the history even of one "Empire", the one whence the term entered English, that of Rome. Imperium originally meant, roughly, "power of command", "rule", as applied to an individual the right to command a Roman army and inflict, subject originally to a right of appeal, the death penalty on Roman citizens. Imperator -Emperor - was originally simply the acclamation given a victorious Roman general by his troops. The first "Emperor" of the Roman Empire, Octavianus Augustus Caesar, preferred to be known simply as princeps, First Citizen. it was not until almost a century later, in AD 69, that Vespasian assumed the title Imperator Romanorum, in the modern sense "Emperor of the Romans".The last person to bear that title, Constantine IX Paleologus in 1453, did not rule any Romans at all, but was the Greek-speaking autocrat of one city and a bit of coastline in Asia Minor, although with an Italian mother, he was a bit more Roman than his predecessors in the job had been for the previous thousand years. The term Imperium Romanum, which we translate as "Roman Empire", was applied to itself by societies ranging from a farmers' republic in Central Italy ruled by an elected assembly through an Italian-dominated superstate covering much of Europe, Western Asia and North Africa ruled by a semi-divine autocrat, a Greek-speaking religious totalitarian state and absolute monarchy in the Eastern Mediterranean, a bit of Asia Minor ruled by a Flemish warlord, and finally a little Greek kingdom on the Bosphorus; to say nothing of a loose confederation of German princedoms which,as Voltaire observed, was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, but which lasted until Napoleon scrapped it in 1806.
The tergiversations history inflicts upon political terms may finally be illustrated by the nature of the last "Roman Army" to enter Rome under the banner SPQR, Senatus Populesque Romanum, "the Senate and People of Rome". It consisted, in 535 AD, of a band of Thracians, Anatolians, Germans and Slavs, commanded by a Thracian Slav whose name, Belisarius, was an elison of Byely-Tsar, "White Caesar", the last word therein being a Roman family name from 500 years earlier which had originally meant "Hairy" but had become a word for "Emperor" (as if Britain were to be ruled in perpetuity, as at one time seemed horribly possible, by autocrats called "the Thatcher"). This un-Roman assemblage obeyed the will of the son of a barbarian peasant from Bulgaria who ruled a Greek- speaking state in ideological thrall to a Jewish sect, and it marched into a Rome peopled largely by descendants of Syrians, other Western Asians and Greeks in which ethnic Romans were an impotent and largely self-unaware minority, ruled by the descendants of southern Swedish tribesmen. The impotent phantom of the Roman Senate supported, for what it was worth, the King of the Visigoths the "Roman" Army was invading Rome to drive out, and the People of Rome in the original sense were all but extinct. This "Roman" invasion of Rome started a twenty year war which devastated Rome and much of Italy and ended any last chanceof the revival of any power based in Rome itself. Yet it was all done under the banner of the Senate and People of Rome!
For that matter, the latest state to date to call itself an Empire, the Central African Empire of Jean Bedel Bokassa, was an impoverished former French colonial province in the depths of Africa, an ex-province ruled by a cannibal despot who kept the arms and legs of political opponents in the Imperial Fridge for regular consumption. The said pleasant fellow was kept in office, until it ceased to suit the Quai d'Orsay, by a battalion of French paratroops stationed in his shack and shanty-town "Imperial Capital".
But that does not mean the term "Empire" is meaningless. Clearly, the Empire of Augustus had much in common with that of Napoleon, and Alexander, and Basil II the Bulgar-slayer, and Czar Nicholas II, and Wu Ti, and Victoria, and Stalin, and Rameses II, and perhaps even the domain of the powers which Bill Clinton personifies, which it did not share with the "Empires" of Constantine IX or M. Bokassa or, say, modern Norway. That common factor would seem to lie partly in being a state of many nations,or ethnic identities howsoever termed, held together from a common centre and not, or not really, a voluntary confederation thereof, partly in some more impalpable sense of its own identity as coterminous, in fact or in aspiration, with what it regarded as "civilization".
Such Empires, whether they call themselves that or no, seem to me to fall into three main types: those that centre on a person, those that centre on a nation or a people, and those that centre on an idea. They may, and indeed usually do, evolve from one to the next category. Empires based simply on one individual without any firmer foundation, such as that of Tamerlane, seldom outlive their founder. But in most cases the founding conqueror but leads a conquering nation, as Alexander did the Macedonians, Napoleon the French, Hitler the Germans. However, even where all enemies are vanquished, instead of, as in the latter two cases, the reverse, such empires still seldom outlive their founder. Alexander's Empire fell apart into the rival realms of his warring generals. Nonetheless, although one Macedonian-ruled state did not survive, several such did, and Graeco-Macedonian cultural and linguistic hegemony over the Middle East was almost as pervasive as is Arab today for several centuries thereafter.
More stable are empires, such as the Roman, the Han and the British, created by slow but sure expansion by one core nation over centuries. The problem that then arises is of maintaining cohesion in the face of erosion of the identity and strength of the imperial nation by a number of factors which seem common to empires. Often the conquerors become the victims of their own success. The martial nobility and sturdy, free yeomanry who normally comprise such nations in the days of their rise and form the backbone of its military strength degenerate into idle parasitic sybarites on one hand and into impoverished serfs and urban proletarians on the other, as happened to both Classical Rome and Byzantium. The free farmers who proudly rallied to the standard of their elected temporary war leader Cincinnatus and of the Republic evolved into the urban proles who cut off their thumbs to dodge the draft into the Imperial legions of the latest general to seize the throne. Power is concentrated into ever fewer and fewer hands, alienating the populace from whom the soldiers sprang. Cheap foreign labour is sucked into the imperial heartland, eroding its perception of its own national identity, whilst alien cultural and intellectual fashions confuse and corrode the imperial core culture. As Edward Gibbon put it in his classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Chap.XXXI) "When the prodigal commons had imprudently alienated not only the use,but the inheritance, of power, they sunk, under the reign of the Caesars, into a vile and wretched populace, which must, in a few generations, have been totally extinguished, if it had not been constantly recruited by the manumission of slaves and the influx of strangers. As early as the time of Hadrian it was the just complaint of the ingenuous natives that the capital had attracted the vices of the universe and the manners of the most opposite nations". This is to some extent inevitable, as the Empire seeks to incorporate its subjects into itself and thereby imbue them with a degree of identification with and loyalty to it. But the danger is that the sense of identity, pride and purpose which forged the Imperial state is lost, as it was in Rome and in the later Mongol Empire.
As a substitute, an identity, pride and purpose tends to form around an idea of the Imperial State as coterminous with civilization. This again happened to Rome and to Han China. In the case of Rome an additional factor was added: an Imperial state ideology, Christianity, enforced with full totalitarian armamentarium of secret police and ruthless persecution of thought criminals; itself, significantly, not sprung from the Roman people but from one of their conquered subject nations. Just as in the late Republic the Roman city-state had been able to assimilate other Italians into a greater Roman nation, so by the late Empire many more educated people from Britain to Egypt thought of themselves as "Romans", and "Rome", "Christendom" and "Civilization" became synonymous to many. The problem was - and Gibbon relates it in enthralling and often dryly witty detail -firstly, that unlike various Italian tribes, closely related and, except for the Etruscans, culturally and linguistically very similar, the various nations of the Empire were simply too diverse to cohere effectively, especially as the original Roman nation had imploded into ineffectiveness, so that Germanic Roman soldiers tended to identify as much with their barbarian kinsmen beyond the borders as with their Celtic or Italian brothers in arms beneath the Eagles, and to fight, or not, accordingly; secondly that totalitarian ideologies like Christianity and Communism are very prone to splits, factions, heresies and schisms. Dissident Christian sects would prefer, as the Monophysites did with the Muslims, rule by outright unbelievers from outside the Empire to living under an Empire ruled by "heretics". The result is that Rome fell. As, later, did the empires of the Arabs, Ottomans and Soviets. Yet the idea of Empire may linger in the hearts of those whose ancestors ceased to regard it as a foreign imposition but instead as "civilization" of which they were a part. From Charlemagne to Jacques Delors the Western Europeans have made repeated, more or less pathetic, attempts to stick the Roman Imperial Humpty back together again. But the Romans themselves, even the Italians, were never again in a position to try. Empire, as it generally does, had destroyed conquerors more thoroughly than conquered.
One case argues that such a fall may not be inevitable. The Han Empire in China, founded in 220 BC, survives in substance to this day. 1100 million Chinese still call themselves "Han", as for a thousand years the Byzantine Greeks and Anatolians called themselves Romaoi, Romans. They live in a state which has again gathered to itself all the Han lands, and in which non-Han, Tibetans and other minorities, in all under 10% of the modern Chinese state's subjects, are systematically being swamped and eliminated. The peoples the Ch'in had incorporated into their Han Empire were ethnically and culturally very similar. The early ideological totalitarianism epitomised by Chancellor Li Su's burning of the Confucian Willow Books in 213 BC gave way to a Confucian-influenced Imperial culture which still underlies today's "socialism with Chinese characteristics". The Empire was also geographically compact, if large, with internal lines of communication. As an ethnic, cultural and geographical unit the Chinese "Rome" never fell, and it could be argued that Chairman Deng still presides over a 2,300-year-old empire - if that, despite its vast area and population, is actually what it is, a point to which we shall return - which seems set fair to become the greatest economic, and therefore probably military, power on Earth some time in the next century.
More modern Empires are in eclipse. The British Empire, the greatest in extent and population the world had ever known, was, like Rome, built by one nation but became imbued with the idea of itself as the light of World Civilization, bearing, as Rudyard Kipling put it, "the White Man's Burden", a burden of bringing civilization to the barbarians for their own good, "Fill full the mouth of Famine; And bid the sickness cease", to "bind your sons to exile To serve your captives' need". Kipling's verse, and indeed his view of the mission of the civilizing Imperial power, would have been entirely comprehensible to a Roman officer on Hadrian's Wall, or a Han official on the edgeof the Taklamakan Desert. In all these cases the subject peoples benefitted, certainly. The Imperial civilization and culture spread. Literacy and a more advanced, complex civilization were imparted to Celts, Germans and the tribes around the Chinese heartland. Likewise Britain similarly endowed Black Africans .Indians, already civilized, received peace and European medicaland agricultural science. India's population under the Raj, with its railways and doctors and subcontinent-wide system of famine relief, rose from around 100 to over 250 million by 1947, and has seemed set to soar asymptotically since. So much for "Imperialist exploitation"! Indeed, it was the Empire which exploited Britain, as the profits of the Industrial Revolution were exported to build cotton mills in India (to the ultimate ruin of those of Lancashire) and railways in economically if not politically subordinate Argentina. Germany, bereft of Empire to consume the fruits of its industrial efforts, was able to invest them in retooling repeatedly with the latest technology, so that by 1913 it was set to overtake Britain in industrial output. Certainly the Capitalists who ploughed the profits of British workers' labour into building factories in India and railways across what is now much of the Third World profited themselves thereby. But so did the Indians and Africans and Latin Americans, who would much more slowly, if at all, have developed such an industrial infrastructure (which in the longer term may be a Greek gift, but that is another matter!) The losers, as repeatedly in the tale of Empire, were the ordinary people of the Imperial heartland nation. Little good did the conquests of the Caesars do the Italian yeomen farmers whose forebears were the core of the Roman Republic. Did the factory fodder of the Midlands, the farmers of the Shires, gain any more from the Empire of Victoria?
Especially as Britain, too, began to suffer the fate which afflicted Rome, as its rule was spread ever thinner over ever greater ethnic and cultural diversity, some of which began to flow back into the Imperial heartland. While the Empire lasted, the fiction had to be maintained, in Britain as in Rome, that all Imperial citizens had a right to move freely within the Empire. Had the Empire endured, it might have proved far more difficult, if not impossible, to stem even to the extent it has been the flow of Asian and African provincials into the British hub of Empire. As it was, it was not until 1948, in the twilight of Imperium, that the homeland felt able to deny loyal Imperial subjects, be they ever so foreign, the right of abode in the putative "Motherland" - a right West Indians in particular were eager to enjoy in the 1950's. Had the Empire endured, some Westminster Caracalla might have bestowed British citizenship on all British Imperial subjects, as was done in 212 AD to all free inhabitants of the Roman realm, and the hordes of the Indian and African continents flowed freely to swamp the fount of Empire, and the Ganges, to paraphrase Juvenal, become a tributary of the Thames on a scale to dwarf what actually happened. Had the British Empire endured, the peoples of Britain, like the old Romans, would likely not have done so, as ethnic and cultural entities.
But the British Empire did not endure, felled before it could fall, as was that of Athens, by another slayer of Empires - war. Like Classical Greece but unlike Classical Italy, in the 19th Century one European Empire did not swallow up all others. Instead, like Athens and Sparta, they fought, to the ruination of victor and vanquished alike and the gain of a half-civilized peripheral power: in Classical Greece, Macedonia, in modern Europe, America. America, the latest Empire, is not the only Empire. Apart from China, Indonesia is in reality a Javanese Empire, one still in its militant expansionist phase, albeit quietly engaged in colonising conquered provinces for now. One day Malaysians and even Australians may look for trouble from that quarter, as may we all when China puts forth her full reborn might. But America is the greatest and one of the oddest. Empire it certainly is. Its heartland spans a continent and comprises almost every nation and ethnos on Earth - no doubt even the odd Australian aborigine has a US passport somewhere! And its military bases girdle the globe, a globe its economic system largely owns and which sits mesmerised by its consumerist culture (if that is the word for the most vapid drivel ever to characterise any human cultural entity - any tribe of neolithic New Guinea cannibals is at a higher level of art and creativity than Hollywood and Motown). It also shares the Imperial vision of itself as the heart and fount of all civilization, yet it lacks anything which could really be said to comprise its corenation. It is a Roman Empire without Romans. There is no such thing as an American nation. There could be, or have been, nations in America - the Confederate South is one, the Mid-West another - but they are potential rather than actual. The centres of power in America, political, cultural, economic, Capitol Hill, Hollywood, Wall Street, are deracinated and cosmopolitan. It was said of America that she went from barbarism to decadence without the intervening civilization, and in the sense that this happened to Empires such as Rome this is true. New York today is like Rome in the Second Century AD, and culturally and intellectually America is as barren as the Rome of Commodus, and, probably, as doomed.
For previous Empires have been built militarily, around the steelcore of the Imperial nation. A steel core which inevitably, it seems, rusts away if it is engulfed by a large enough foreign subject mass, but which while it lasts holds the structure together. America's global hegemony was largely built up economically, without fighting, fortunately for Americans, since the evidence, from the Bulge to Vietnam to Somalia, is that by and large they cannot, or will not, fight. As individuals, even as a few elite units such as the Marines and the 44th Airborne, or fighting for their own homes as in the War between the States, they are as brave as any. But in the mass, they cannot stand and take casualties. They run away if given a bloody nose abroad. If America is a paper tiger, the paper is made of dollar bills. Seriously challenged, not for survival but for her global outposts, she will crumble. Simply kill enough Americans, and the rest will run. Internally, America is equally weak, behind her glossy fašade of wealth. The cities are jungles into which few venture without need. Around them sprawl suburbs, cocooned from reality by cheap petrol and wealth. If either dries up, they will awake, angry. Outside lies a disillusioned, disenfranchised rural European-peopled hinterland inhabited by what is actually a God fearing peasantry, increasingly alienated by the Government and culture imposed on them by a deracine elite whose ideology is at variance with that of much of those who thus far have tolerated their governance. Like late Antique Rome, modern America is an Empire ripe for the falling. and, perhaps, replacement with an alternative to Empire, smaller, more homogenous and culturally alive communities an a more human scale.
That, not the endless rise and fall of Empires, must be where the last best hope of humanity lies. Empires choke on their own conquests, and fall, and with them, if they last long enough, which the British Empire did not, falls the nation which built them - where are the Romans or the Byzantines today? They benefit the conquered sometimes, the conquerors never, unless they are alike enough to become one nation, as Roman and German, Briton and Indian, were not, but as the peoples of Ch'in and Han and Weiand Ch'u were; or unless there are no, or insignificantly few, conquered, as was the case when the Han expanded East and North to the borders of modern China and as the British did in Canada and Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand and Southern Africa. The British, like the Chinese, could have confined the lands they ruled to the lands they settled, and perhaps built a greater Britain as the Han built a Greater China. So did Sir Frederick Grover Seeley advocate in 1883, an idea whose time has almost certainly now gone, pace Sir Frederick's faint modern echoers. But here was the only good for the British peoples that might have come from the British Empire: if, like the Han, they had stayed one nation in a bigger territory, not one nation ruling many. In a sense, under my earlier definition, the one enduring Empire, China, is not one at all, for nearly all its subjects are ethnically, culturally and by their own wish Han. China is not an empire in the Roman or British sense at all, but the planet's biggest nation, which is why it alone has not fallen, why alone its heartland nation was not culturally and ethnically swamped by those it conquered, why China, the Han nation, has survived down the millennia.
For nations endure. Peoples endure. They deserve, perhaps, a chance to do more, to determine their own destiny and in that freedom flourish. Better a world of many small states, each contributing its own distinct and diverse note to the orchestra of human culture and civilization, than the striving of Imperial superpowers, each seeking to blare the others into silence, a silence imposed in the future perhaps by their atomic fire upon us all. The time of Empire must pass. The time of nations must come, or all the World will become one Empire, ruled by the multinational octopus of greed, all her peoples sapped and stifled as the Romans and the Ottomans and the Mongols were. And when that last and greatest of the Empires falls, it will fall for ever. And civilization with it.