By Campaign Agent Ben Abbs
What a dirty word.
For many readers ‘Empire’ probably conjures up images of British governors with stiff upper lips and bushy moustaches, sipping tea and ordering around people of a different coloured skin. Alternatively, one envisions Europeans carving-up Africa in a European boardroom, French soldiers brutalising Algerian villagers, or cartoons of Cecil Rhodes standing across the continent of Africa. Rhodes' most acclaimed comment was that to be born an Englishman was to have “won first prize in the lottery of life”; his life’s ambition was the expansion of the British Empire and the Cairo-Capetown railway. He was the embodiment of empire and imperialism. So much so, that his controversial legacy continues to cause anger today.
The problem with words is that they are just that: words. Common images of empire are powerful, yet they are dangerous and can supersede the meaning of the word. As our histories, cultural paradigms, and stereotypes become entangled with contemporary definitions and perceptions we lose sight of Empire. Further, popular perceptions, often spurned by political rhetoric, can be infantilely simplistic. Empire is frequently defined in terms of ‘bad’, a force for an evil state, or occasionally a ‘good’ force bringing reform and progress. Such polar distinctions are less useful. In many cases, perceptions of empire need reappraisal to gain sight of contemporary versions of empire and an understanding of political dominance. After all, it is easy to study and discuss old European empires - dead empires don’t fight back.
Empire, crudely defined as the rule of a monarch, oligarchy or sovereign state over two or more other polities, exists across the world today. The United Kingdom within the British Isles alone just scrapes into this category, with England having extended its control over Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland and England voluntarily joined to become the United Kingdom through the 1707 Acts of Union). Despite its anti-imperial certainties, the United States presides over a plethora of peoples, from Puerto Rico to Hawaii, to the almost eradicated indigenous communities of North America. Indeed, the USA’s ideology of cultural universalism, a belief that its political and legal principles should be spread across humanity, underpinned its eighteenth-century expansion westward into North America, just as it bolsters its overseas action today.
Modern China defines itself as a bastion against empire. Central to Chinese identity, driven by the Chinese Communist Party, is the narrative of victimisation: “the century of humiliation” suffered from the imperial incursions of the ‘bad’ European Empires and Japan. Yet, China also represents an empire. Rule over Mongolia, Tibet and Qinghai alone prescribe mainland China as an empire. Settler colonialism, normally reserved for European endeavours, was also undertaken by the Qing dynasty, admittedly on a smaller scale. Like the US in the central plains of North America, Chinese settlers almost eradicated the indigenous Formosan aborigines when they settled in Taiwan from the seventeenth-century.
Interestingly, these examples highlight the complex grey area between nation and empire. Empires often transition into stable realities, even self-described nations, particularly when experiencing prosperity. However, this also normally involves some form of violent societal cleansing. Crucially, as we strive to gain objective sight of our political world, we should note that such entities are often only perceived as empires, and criticised thus, after their demise. As Reinhold Niebuhr (in Nations and Empires: Recurring Patterns in the Political Order) outlines, reference to the USSR as the ‘soviet empire’ proliferated after it disintegrated.
Yet, grappling with the semantics of empire and its modern forms does not sufficiently enlighten us to modern modes of political dominance and projection. Formal empires, the sort of flag-planting, map-colouring, political control we stereotype, have been out of vogue in the post-WW2 world of the United Nations; increasingly so as the political landscape becomes more multipolar. In light of the US-led invasion of Iraq, China’s expansion in the South China Sea, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, the Crimea, and Syria (where other players, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah, Turkey and the US have also intervened) conventional conceptualisation of empire, military threats, warfare, and formal expansion seem frequently redundant. The bravado between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un illustrates that traditional power-politics between two contrarian leaders is not something of the past. However, we should remain alert to the explicit, instrumental imposition of political influence of one group over others, which soon gets one into treacherous waters. Imperialism, a policy of extending one state's power and influence over another, is a term often deployed in such cases, but it has become an emotive piece of political 'fluff'. Accusations of imperialism are frequently deployed by many politicians across the world as a catch-all negative phrase to garner support. The term is problematically orientated around colonization and conventional military force. It does not do justice to the asymmetrical warfare, support and intervention in today’s de-stabilised conflict zones in Syria, East-Ukraine, Yemen, and Somalia or cyberspace. Further, one must be careful to delineate as much as possible between intentional and unintentional influence. Inequality is a constituent, if unjust, feature of politics. Consequently, states with political and economic strength will be able to influence weaker states more than these will, in turn, influence them.
Thus, I leave the reader with a thought, stressing the need to be conscious of the limitations of our definitions and perspectives, and a call to be open-minded to freshly reappraising and conceptualising power dynamics when necessary within our changing world. Appropriately defining entities, power relations and events is necessary to grasp their workings and intricacies. Only then can one comprehensively understand them.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Linda Colley, ‘The Difficulties of Empire: Present, past and future’, Historical Research, Vol.79, (2006)
- Mark F. Proudman, ‘Words for Scholars: The Semantics of “Imperialism”’, Journal of The Historical Society, Vol.8, (2008)
- S. Potter and J. Saha, ‘Global History, Imperial History and Connected Histories of Empire’ Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, Vol.16, (2015)
- Matt Schiavezna, 'How Humiliation Drove Modern Chinese History', The Atlantic(25 October 2013)
- Tonio Adrande, 'How Taiwan Became Chinese', Gutenberg, (2007)
- Jessica Elgot, '‘Take it down!’: Rhodes Must Fall campaign marches through Oxford', The Guardian (9 March 2016)
Image: Desmond Bowles @Flickr