The Rule Of Empires: Those Who Build Them, Those Who Endured Them And Why They Always Fall, by Timothy H. Parsons
This book takes a really negative look at empires, as may be evident by the book’s subtitle, but at least to me, this book proves too much in painting such a starkly negative view of empires. It may be true that all empires are exploitative and depend on the difference between internal citizens and external subjects whose wealth and resources are siphoned off for a corrupt elite, but if that is true for all empires, then it is also true of any socialist state. Indeed, the author’s exploration of why it is that empires inevitably fail is simultaneously a discussion of why it is that any socialist state will also inevitably fail, and that is perhaps something that the author did not intend. Sometimes in proving our points we can prove too much by putting such a starkly negative and harsh view of how empires behave that we forget that such behaviors are also true of other states which similarly have corrupt and privileged elites and a great deal of oppressed masses yearning to be free of tyrannical and totalitarian rule but which may strenuously wish to avoid being called empires.
This book is a massive set of case studies on imperialism that demonstrate the author’s hostility and his selectivity in choosing cases. The book begins with acknowledgements as well as an introduction that gives the author’s firm intent to write about imperialism as much as possible from the point of view of the oppressed subaltern subjects of empire rather than from the more sanitized and favorable elites of the empire. After that the author provides seven cases of imperialism in world history, demonstrating in these cases that anyone can find themselves as the subject of empire and that the most suitable targets of empires are other empires who have already trained their populace in the ways of extraction and domination by corrupt elites. The author discusses the case of Roman Britian as evidence of an absence of Rome’s civilizing mission (1), then turns to Muslim Spain and the problem that empires have when they blur the line of subject to the point where people escape extraction and make imperialism unprofitable (2). After that the author looks at the franchise empire that Spain set up in Peru through the conquistadors (3) and then the private and corporate empire building that took place in India under the East India company (4) through their successful efforts at tax farming. A chapter on Napoleonic Italy (5) provides an example of abortive empire building before the author looks at the short life of the New Imperialism in Kenya (6). After that the author discusses France under the Nazis as being a discussion of how brutal imperialism fails when it antagonizes everyone (7) as well as a look at the “end” of imperialism in the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan in a conclusion, after which there are the usual notes and an index.
It appears that the author is mainly interested in attacking the conservative or right-wing tendency for people who fared relatively well under empires to be nostalgic for imperial orders in the messy and corrupt aftermath of the fall of such empires. Yet it is not hard to see that an empire which did siphon the wealth of a nation but which actually did provide some sort of infrastructure in terms of education and roads and railroads and conversion from heathen worship to something at least not totally remote to biblical Christianity would be viewed by many (myself included) as better than corrupt rentier elites in a post-imperial world. We are not dealing with ideals here, but merely which unpleasant reality is to be preferred. The author, in his idealistic hostility towards empires and in his gleeful discussion of how they inevitably fall because they fail to achieve buy-in or eventually blur the lines between citizen and subject to the extent that they are no longer successful in their extractive mission, fails to realize that extraction and the politics of difference are at the heart of the leftist and socialist states that he generally avoids critiquing, and whose failures are equally relevant to our contemporary world as the nostalgic longing for empires past among right-wing Europeans and their (former) settler colonists.
This is a fascinating reading of my book. I say “fascinating” because when I wrote it more than a decade ago “socialism” did not it figure at all the analyses of the various empires in the book. That’s because the reviewers conceptualization of socialism in this review was largely irrelevant to the history of the empires in question (although African and Asian nationalists did find the socialist critique of empire appealing in the 20th century). This review is as an excellent example of how history is continually reinterpreted to reflect the main issues of the day. In this case the reviewer wants to defend the “good things” brought by empires, I would guess because he/she shares the sentiments of the empire builders Thus any criticism of these empires is “socialistic” because the review considers socialism to be “bad.” This reflects the current polarization of American political discourse. But honestly, I’ve barely mentioned socialism in the book because its not particularly relevant to my analyses of why empires are no longer sustainable in the contemporary world. Indeed most of the empires I cite pre-dated 19th century socialism. But don’t take my word for it, read the book, see for yourself.
Thanks for your comments. Obviously, a reader in 2020 who is strongly affected by the political polarization that has gone on in the last few years in the United States is going to see a strong anti-imperialist critique as being motivated by some sort of leftist anti-imperial political agenda even if it is not specifically motivated, as you say, by a fondness for Marxism. The reader brings his (or her) own context to a work and while my own feelings towards empire are ambivalent, they are certainly not uniformly hostile. I appreciate that you thought my review was “fascinating” enough to reply to it and seek to encourage your preferred reading of your text.