Empire Week III: The Case of the Americans

Posted by sepoy on June 06, 2005 · 5 mins read

Nations [or, empires for our purposes here] loomed out of immemorial pasts into limitless futures, wrote Benedict Anderson. If Rome was, and continues to be, the template across which Western empires measured themselves. Then Britain is the empire that looms over this American one [used to be that we called the Americans neo-Imperialists pre-2001 but now that we actually have a colony or two, we should re-assess]. Those who wanted to understand the nature and role of the British empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, looked to the Romans. In a similair vein, those seeking to understand the present state of empire-itis in America should look at the British.

There are the obvious places for making the American-British comparison: their behaviors in the colony; their administration of said colony; their rhetoric; their military spending; their economical benefits of colonization etc. etc. Even a cursory glance should tell the informed commentator that while there are stark differences between the British and American models, they do have a lot in common. Americans invaded a country [for protection of their interests {let's say that freedom from Iraqi terrorists is their interest}]; installed colonial administrators [Paul Brenner III being the imported viceroy and Iyad Allawi being the native elite]; sponsored a limited constitutive assembly, and will maintain military presence indefinitely; finally, to sustain their presence in the colony and to further shore up their regime, they will have to expand the military conflict outside the boundaries of the present colony.

As to the differences, the chief one is that the Americans do not call themselves an Empire. They are quite averse to the E-word, in fact. They have not claimed a civilizational or racial right to be in the colony [freedom being universal according to The Chosen One]. They [naively] want an early departure. If America claims it's not an empire then can we still call it that? As the motto of my dear high school asserted, facta, non verba. America is an empire whether the politicians publicly assert it or not. It has had colonies in Haiti and the Phillipines. It has one in Iraq now. But the public demurral and debate is important nonetheless. It is the debate that shows how the empire will formulate itself and respond to its charges - and in some case, how it will act. Yes, comparisons are inherently tricky. The greatest danger being the urge to over-simplify and wrongly equate. The British were not the Romans and the Americans are not British. I would shy away from any such explicit work but there is one place where I would like to, at the very least, test the possibility of such a comparison. That is the domestic public and private spheres.

Benjamin Disraeli wrote in 1863:

I am perfectly aware that there is a school of politicians - I don't believe they are rising politicians - who are hostile to the very principle of a British Empire. But I have yet to learn that the Majesty's Ministers have adopted the wild opinions which have been pervalent of late. Professors and rhetoricians find a system for every contingency and a principle for every chance; but you are not going, I hope, to leave the destinies of the British Empire to prigs and pedants. The statesmen who construct, and the warriors who achieve are only influenced by the instinct of power, and animated by the love of country. Those are the feelings and those the methods which form empire.

I'd like to imagine Rumsfeld saying this under Jeb Bush's second presidency. However, such a quote would never come out of the WH at this moment. Why not? Why isn't there wider discussion about empire in US outside of the prigs and pedant circles? Ferguson has sold a lot of books but no one has actually read them. Why the aversion to the e-word? In pop-psychological terms, is it because Americans must always root for the underdog? In historical terms, is it because America conceived by an anti-colonial struggle cannot fathom becoming one itself? In sociological terms, is it because America itself is a cultural and racial heterogeny? Maybe it is all of the above. The matter still stands that to the average American - this was tested by an impromptu poll taken by me on a Chicago street - there is no empire.

Bernard Porter's Absent-Minded Imperialists: What the British really thought about empire caught my attention a while ago. I snarked all over it. The more mature and polished sepoy now has some thoughts on the book, on what Porter says empire meant to a subject in the metropole, and what it all can possibly mean to us today.


rob | June 09, 2005

This was tested by an impromptu poll taken by me on a Chicago street ...please, expand? I'm currently imagining you with a clipboard and a bag full of books and newspaper articles, standing outside a showing of Kingdom of Heaven!

sepoy | June 09, 2005

Ha. It was more in the vein of the mumbled, hey man, want some weed? except I did, hey man, want an empire?