Empire State Of Mind

One of the more curious aspects of our lives is the way that we tend to exhibit the frame of mind that we condemn the most in others. Indeed, it is a reliable measurement as to our own personal proclivities to note that which we condemn the most vociferously in others and that which bothers us the most about others. Projection is a common human tendency, so when observing others, knowing what they hate and how they condemn others is a good way to know what they are, and the same sort of indirect method can be used to understand what we are as well, if we choose to seek self-knowledge. One of the areas in which knowing our own state of mind can be extremely useful is dealing with the thorny issue of imperialism, a subject which has many meanings and about which a lot of very imprecise things have been said over time because of the ways in which people have framed the matter so as to avoid condemning themselves for their own positions and their own behaviors. If imperialism is something that can only apply to someone else, then it is something about which we are free, and if it is something that we wish to condemn, we cannot define ourselves as being labeled by it, obviously.

What is an empire? A working definition, as far as geopolitics is concerned, is a sovereign nation that consists of multiple territories and multiple peoples. Alternatively, it is a large organization owned or controlled by one person or group. From this we can see that no matter the realm we are speaking about imperialism, what we are talking about has two essential elements to it, one of which is the fact that one is dealing with control over multiple territories, divisions, peoples, or groups, and that the control is exercised by one person or one group among those. This ought to clue us into the fact that empires are far more common than we may think. The company I work for, for example, is an empire that has expanded via mergers and acquisitions of a large number of various companies in various economic sectors which form “territories” of varying degrees of autonomy ruled over by the central government of the corporation. Likewise, as an American I am a part of an empire [1] that has long been in a sense of denial about being an empire because of its hostility to other rival empires like the British or French or Spanish empires that it has fought or opportunistically purchased territories from or sought protectorates over the remnants of, as the case may be.

What is fundamental to an empire, whether it exists on a corporate or institutional level or whether it exists on the geopolitical level, whether we are dealing with a small empire or whether we are dealing with a larger one, is that there is an essential tension within its identity. We have varied territories and divisions on the one hand, however big or small or of whatever kind, and we have central power and authority and one group which holds both, in stark contrast to the variability of the realm that is governed. By definition, this contrast between unitary power and authority and a variation in what is ruled is going to create some level of problems and difficulties and also suggest some obvious ways for the imperial power to preserve its hold over its disparate domains through policies of divide and conquer by pitting some of its subordinate peoples against others. Ultimately, empire looks much different depending on one’s own personal perspective. It is likely to be seen as a burden to those who hold it and as a threat or oppression to those who feel it in a negative sense. Yet in many empires there is a broad swath of people who do not feel as if they are living in an empire at all because they are part of, in some fashion, the group that rules over the empire, or are part of groups over which the empire does not treat or rule over harshly. During the period of salutary neglect, for example, the American colonies did not feel themselves to be oppressed subaltern classes within the British empire. It is only when that empire sought to change the terms of their relationship to demand more in taxes and to enforce a heavier authority on them that conflict reached to the point of an anti-imperial revolt that resulted in America’s independence. Similarly, it was the threatened loss of imperial status for Southern elites that made staying in the United States intolerable for them until their efforts at nation building were defeated in war and their efforts to maintain local control in the region were accepted and tolerated for the sake of internal peace.

A great many areas in fact are empires without realizing it. One of the continual problems of African development has been the terrible borders that were drawn by European imperial powers, and it is fashionable in these days to condemn the Europeans for their borders, even though these borders might not have felt as oppressive because of the indirect policies of rule that were adopted by many of these powers either in theory (UK) or practice (France, etc.) on account of there being too few European elites for the sort of central control that contemporary African states and states in general seek over the people in their territory. Yet if the French empire is obviously an empire, then Mali, to give but one example, is equally obviously an empire. How do we know this? Mali was an empire historically, part of a chain of Sahel empires (Ghana, Mali, Songhai, to name but the more obvious ones) that ruled over composite territories until their power weakened and they were succeeded by others. The contemporary Malian state, poor and weak though it is, contains composite territories and peoples, including Mande (who make up about half the population of the nation), about a sixth of the population that is Fula, another ten percent that are the Berber Tuaregs frequently in rebellion who rule over the desert country outside of Goa and Timbuktu, and various other smaller peoples like the Songhai and speakers of various Voltaic languages. Mali has composite territories and a diverse population of people, not all of whom are happy to be ruled over by the Malian state, and so it is an empire, with all of the internal problems and difficulties that are inherent in imperial rule. What has kept a nation like Switzerland, for example, from experiencing the same degree of internal difficulties as that faced by the ordinary states of Latin America, Africa, and Asia is the fact that Switzerland has deliberately adopted a federalist form of government with high degrees of local autonomy and a lot of protections for small local identities that has kept, most of the time, its divided linguistic and religious identities from causing internal conflict except in serious crises. The United States, at least as far as its states are concerned, has similarly sought to use federalism as a means of defusing the strong regional identities that have always existed within its borders, and is therefore not as obvious an empire as most.

It can be a great problem when nations are imperialist and do not realize it. A great example of this can be seen among the contemporary French. Even as the French had an acknowledged empire in areas like Algeria, the Caribbean, and Indochina (to name but a few places), they had an unacknowledged empire that was far deeper than that. Let us consider, for example, the sad tendency of Paris and its official institute to see itself as the arbiter of what is and what is not French, even outside of the borders of France (considering the existence of large communities of native French speakers in such countries as Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, to say nothing of other places). Let us also consider the way that French has pushed aside various other languages within the borders of France like Occitan and Breton, making the speakers of those languages feel like second class citizens within the nation of France. This sort of treatment is characteristic of an empire, and the fact that France considers its contemporary imperial territories in such places as Martinique, Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Reunion as metropolitan territories within France signifies the deep state of denial that France is in regarding its own status as an empire. All too often, an imperial state of mind long precedes the actual formal attainment of an extended empire. So it is within Great Britain between the core English society and the Celtic fringes of Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as even Cumbria, to say nothing of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which have a highly ambivalent but definitely imperial identity. It is worthwhile that we examine this imperial state of mind to see the extent to which it resides in us before we so easily condemn others for empires while demonstrating ourselves to be hypocrites.

[1] See, for example:









About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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