Empire Institute

            After the cold war, the geopolitical power vacuum and liberalization – economic privatization and deregulation – helped create ‘failed’ and ‘rogue’ states. American policymakers ignored the proliferation of ‘lawlessness’ occurring in power vacuums because ‘realism’– the theory in which sovereign states are the main actors on the international stage – was the dominant international relations paradigm. Despite the increasing talk of the capabilities of stateless terrorist and criminal networks, both the Clinton and Bush administrations were locked in the old mind-set and did not see how stateless actors could base their operations in ‘geopolitical black holes.’ Yet on September 11, 2001, the world began to dimly perceive the power of transnational networks.

              Terrorist networks, like the most successful criminal organizations, are not only part of the social structure, they exploit it. Thus, the Bush administration said it would pursue terrorists as well as its state sponsors. However, this proves to be more complicated in practice. Both international terrorism and crime is connected with the international financial system which unites the underworld and upper-world. Though the dark side of globalization has finally been recognized, the rule of law cannot simply be enforced in the way that banditry and piracy were once fought because the licit and illicit have become interwoven into the social fabric itself. Almost every product and service interfaces with the black market, although customers would rather ignore this fact.

              Imperialism has become the dominant subtext for domestic and international affairs across the news spectrum: from newspapers—concerned with recording the steady flow of events—to weekly newsmagazines which interpret current events—turning news into history. Attempts to portray post 9-11 events has created, what Walter Isaacson calls, impressionistic history: “Like an Impressionist painting, it relies on dots of varying hues and intensity.” The picture of the Bush Presidency, for example, resembles a jigsaw puzzle in which the consumer of public information connects the pieces in accordance with the total meaning that is slowly emerging from special reports, official interviews, memoirs of major players and leaks from anonymous sources. Inside narratives on bureaucratic turf battles over strategy and policy without documentation will remain problematical for decades to come. Until the principal actors inside the Bush administration provide their view of how decisions were made as events were unfolding since 9-11, we simply have no hard evidence to substantiate the various motives. Yet, regardless of any detailed elitist account, the fundamental significance of these events can only be understood in historical context.

              A common thread running through this changing picture of the Bush administration is the growing body of observations forming around the constitutional crisis arising from the so-called “war on terror.” The imperial presidency of George W. Bush has curbed the rights and liberties of individuals and has politically attacked both the independency of the judiciary and media by using one of the oldest political tricks in history. The war on terror has been strategically used to whip up a panic and thus dismiss dissenting voices as unpatriotic and soft on terror. Bush has created a classic situation in which the excesses of power abroad have led to abuses at home. The concentration of executive power is seriously challenging America’s liberal democracy and its developed system of checks and balances. However, the imperial system was actually established in the aftermath of the Second World War and the dissolution of Prussia. The National Security Act of 1947 reorganized the United States' armed forces, foreign policy and Intelligence Community apparatus, and created new institutions of extra constitutional power, such as the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Central Intelligence Agency.

              It is too simplistic to suppose that only autocratic administrations or despotic governments practice imperialism. A nation’s internal arrangements are irrelevant criteria for defining imperialism because plenty of democratic polities have pursued imperial policies. Nor should liberal governments be seen as a source of weakness. Liberal constitutions impose constraints on power, but Paul Starr has shown how this disciplined constraint makes them strong: “By binding those in power, making their behavior more predictable and reliable, and thereby increasing the trust and the confidence of citizens, creditors, and investors, constitutionalism amplifies the long-term power and wealth of a state.” Moreover, from a long term perspective, Starr argues that warfare with a high level of mobilization and participation ratio has created democratizing effects in so far it makes authority concede power, for example, opening the way to citizenship, housing and education. In short, the cycles of Anglo-American history reveal a unique pattern.

              The mass democratic revolutions in 19th century Europe and North America created a situation in which urban laborers and frontiersmen began to demand a say in domestic affairs. Though the great influx of laborers and the dissemination of radical ideas throughout the second half of the 19th century brought the whole problem of mass against class to the fore, the vagaries of the mass mind were something statesmen could, more or less, ignore since it did not significantly impinge on the conduct of diplomacy and war. Napoleon III, Disraeli and Bismarck never really cared much about what the masses thought about geopolitics. They rather manipulated the mass mind through the control of the press. International affairs belonged securely in the hands of the gentlemanly classes and the enlightened public. After the tragedy of the First World War, attitudes limited to a small circle of elites had to defer to the public’s aversion to war. The man in the street has become more insistent about his right to express his opinion on international as well as domestic affairs; consequently, weakening the resolution of governments’ international commitments and objectives. The heightened importance of public sentiment necessitated the growth of publicity and propaganda. The irruption of anti-imperial sentiment expressed in Britain’s opposition press triggered the counter rhetorical charge which the World War I-era imperialist intellectuals managed and who are, incidentally, now, greatly admired by American neoconservatives.

The figure of the journalist emerged from the Second World War as history’s acknowledged eyewitness. The men at the likes of Fox Movietonews, who headed the first news, newsreel and newspaper expeditions, quickly recognized the propagandistic power of celluloid psychology. The mass media have given audiences a new form of eyewitness accounting of history through photographic and cinematic experience. Yet the dispute between American media and American military is the same as always, which has always revolved around access. Armies of hired hacks eager to cover war have as much access that government officials grant. Now that Western war correspondents are increasingly being targeted, they either become embedded within the U.S. military or risk becoming part of the media spectacle themselves.

Robert Kaplan has taken the opportunity to colorfully depict the reality on the ground through America’s powered-down command structure in a dramatic as well as credible fashion. He covers guerilla warfare from the perspective of America’s N.C.O.’s and imperial grunts on the one hand and insurgents and terrorists on the other. However, no journalist can dig deep enough to get to the bottom of empire, which according to David Rieff “is a general question, not a particular one, a subject that may be illuminated by historical and moral analysis, but not by reportage, no matter how vivid and valiant.” Indeed, all good investigative reporting enlivens contemporary history, but the philosophical implications of empire and imperial rivalry in the 21st century have to be discussed in grand historical terms and with an eye for novelty. In other words, diplomatic and military maneuvers must be analyzed against a geopolitical background and wars against long term socioeconomic trends.

Meanwhile, a new political space has opened up where one may sense the dark stirrings of the collective unconscious. Professional journalists and traditional media institutions, as Time Magazine’s 2006 person of the year recently admitted, no longer have exclusive social control of the globalized informational terrain. The distinction between amateur and professional journalists is slowly dissolving with the rise of new communication media, such as e-mail, web video, satellite cell phones: text messaging, cameras and videos. This anarchy of aural, verbal, and visual media has also revolutionized insurgency and terrorism. Any small scale violent act can be symbolically amplified through cyberspace beyond its actual physical impact. Insurgents and terrorists are becoming experts at using propaganda and subversion as an instrument of warfare—making counterinsurgency even more complicated.

At any rate, interpreting the twin features of insurgency and counterinsurgency within the framework of imperialism simplifies our understanding of current events. Imperial police actions occur either on sea or land, and involve the integration of military, intelligence and civil activities. Because the U.S can project power and impose sea-lane control anywhere in the world, international insurgency and terrorism facing the U.S. today has a minimal maritime dimension. The U.S. Navy’s effective control of the world's oceans since World War II is still the most significant geopolitical fact of contemporary history. Nonetheless, America’s superior sea and air power has not been successful in dislodging enemies from territory, which requires occupation by ground forces. “That,” Edward Luttwak asserts, “however, is bound to cost casualties that might not be tolerated; it is also bound to provoke an insurgency.”

An insurgency always runs through a given population, whose support provides insurgents with the necessary invisibility for avoiding direct confrontation with advanced conventional forces. Thus, many liberals assume the only way of defeating an insurgency and establishing successful governance is through gaining popular support. For example, General Petraeus’ manual on counterinsurgency states: victory will never be achieved until “the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy.” Yet according to Luttwak, “the extraordinary persistence of dictatorships as diverse in style as the regimes of Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Syria shows that in fact government needs no popular support as long as it can secure obedience,” which comes into existence through strict authoritative prohibitions and sure punishment.

First, governments can maintain obedience without popular support. Second, popular support can take on diverse forms, depending upon the moral, legal and ideological principles that constitute a society. Third, although liberals want to establish order in Iraq and Afghanistan—being post-imperial themselves—they never think of security in terms of conquest, which reveals their propensity to overlook history. Afghanistan since becoming a nation has exhibited the sort of instability that one usually associates with failed states. All invading powers that have been drawn into its vicinity have paid a high price in blood and treasure. Mesopotamia, on the other hand, has essentially been ruled through either corruption or terror since the British abandoned the newly created state of Iraq after they realized that their British-built institutions had failed to take root. Iraq has simply little experience with self-governance. At least, history there shows that obedience can be established when a strongman dominates the various ethnic tribes.

Past empires always developed strategies of collaboration, and established social control of a populace through a system of rewards and threats, since they lacked the manpower to govern vast spaces of territory. Instead of hunting down every hidden rebel, Luttwak tells us, imperial policing involved going “to the village chiefs and town notables” and demanding “their surrender, or else.” Imperial power essentially rests on “social pressure rather than brute force.” In short, there is no contradiction between burning down villages and winning the “hearts and minds” of a populace. In fact, counter-terror and random massacres are well proven methods for effectively controlling a broad population. In the information age, problems arise when news and brutal images of counter-insurgency get out, and contradict a democracy’s own liberal ideology. This issue raises questions concerning the use of force. Tony Blair’s foreign policy guru Robert Cooper thinks the postmodern world needs “to get used to the idea of double standards.” The British diplomat argues: “Among ourselves, we keep to the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.”

The “war on terror" is primarily a global informational war. Plainly, the use of strategic communications to spin events or strengthen a nation’s public image is much more difficult to do abroad than domestically. Frank Rich’s story of how the Bush administration sold a war of choice to the American public by using the latest PR techniques rested on the collapse of news standards during the 1990s and the rise of “an overheated 24/7 infotainment culture [that] trivialized the very idea of reality.” Whether one is living in the big city, suburbs or rural America, reality has been reduced to what gets filtered through TV. New forms of instantaneous communication have given rise to new structures of feeling and thought, yet the imagery and content of the system continues to be commercially driven. The new aesthetic and political order is more conducive to mythical than historical consciousness, which springs from the brevity of the public’s attention span and memory.

Myth is a conservative force that is concerned with preserving the existing order by reinforcing accepted modes of conduct, and by excluding alternative solutions to life’s essential conflicts. In short, manipulation is made easier when man lives in a state of cultural amnesia, where actions have neither consequences nor causes. The masses will never grasp the reasons behind today’s headlines until they pull themselves out of the pseudo world of sacred-causality. Investigating current affairs through the constraints of world history not only discourages wishful-thinking, but endows one with a historical sense, as Sir Lewis Namier suggested, “of how things do not happen.”

In any case, America’s management of minds and the spectrum is limited. Older notions of manipulation—propaganda and advertising—have since the 1970s been replaced with models drawn from the field of communications theory, which insists that perception and reception are creative acts. The old stimulus-response models in which the transmitter of messages directly influences the behavior of recipients were replaced by models which acknowledge the ability of recipients to interpret messages selectively. The power to change the behavior of a citizen-consumer through manipulation had been exaggerated, except in dictatorships where all lines of communication are centrally controlled. (Yet, people in dictatorships, at least, know that all information is controlled, and so are more skeptical of news than those in democracies.) Theorists, now, see manipulation in terms of influencing existing tendencies and shaping the perceptions of individuals or groups, and even this assumes intimate knowledge of a culture. Al Jazeera, the most popular source of news for the Arabic speaking world since the mid-1990s, depicts a very different reality from the one Fox or CNN portrays. US public diplomacy is constantly being preempted by images of actions that seemingly contradict America’s scripted messages. The Bush and Blair administration’s Middle East foreign policy—especially their joint reaction to Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon—has destroyed their nation’s credibility in the region for decades.

The privatization of war and intelligence and the growth of homegrown Islamic terrorism are two increasing trends that have arisen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. An open world inundated with information enhanced by developments within communications has radically altered peace and security. The Pentagon’s newly released estimate of Private Military Contractors working in Iraq is around 100,000—far outnumbering Bush’s so-called “coalition of the willing.” The dramatic increase of PMCs can partially be explained by the general trend towards privatization and the need for managing domestic perception—nobody has to report PMC casualties. Despite all the hype about the blogosphere, engaged citizens and the new digital democracy, al Qaeda propaganda on the Internet is inspiring and radicalizing alienated—primarily, second and third generation children of immigrants—citizens to attack soft targets. Finally, the director of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency in 2006 publicly warned of the threat from within multicultural Europe and North America; potentially, a greater danger than international terrorism itself.

              Our goal is not to judge whether this new drive towards empire is good or bad, either for the United States or the world. We neither wish to approve nor disapprove, our aim rather is to simply understand this new universe of discourse, which is divided between supporters, who argue that liberal empires bring efficient and benevolent administration to “de-sovereignized” territory—geopolitical black holes where neither international law nor traditional politics operate on the national-territorial principle—and critics of imperialism, who insist the ultimate objective of empire is always thievery—appropriating the richest assets from weak spaces. The bare facts of international affairs are continuously being marshaled as evidence in support of either of these narratives, depending upon one’s ideological orientation. Again, we neither wish to praise nor blame, our aim is to consider how empires actually function. Our structural criticism offers no reform programs. On this point, we follow the lead of Lewis Lapham of Harper’s Magazine, whose editorial policy has “been more interested in the play of mind than in its harnessing to a political bandwagon.” Pursuing the play of ideas is also part of the Enlightenment legacy, along with the humanistic struggle of becoming rational and self-determining beings; a philosophical ethos that we assume.   

              Theories develop to explain some reality that is not self-evident, in our case, the historical process of empires – the general rise and fall of empires – Western expansion, and the unique roots of contemporary imperialism. The most influential explanations of imperialism emerged around the turn of the 20th century, which corresponds with the genesis of the “new imperialism,” the period from 1870 to 1914 when Western civilization was in a unique position to penetrate every corner of the earth. Wars throughout the last quarter of the 19th century were becoming increasingly economic and matters of speculation; the great powers made diplomatic efforts to avoid conflicts within Europe, and hence catastrophe. Yet, to ensure peace, every state prepared for war, which also required symbolic demonstrations of power as well as intelligence collection on military security.

              The underlying causes for imperial expansion are the same ones being employed now: namely, the necessity of economics, both in terms of trade and capital investment, politico-strategic concerns, such as national interests and security, and psychological motivations – primitive atavism as well as civilizing missions. Moreover, economic, political and ideological explanations of imperialism are further analyzed on the basis of metropolitan or peripheral trends; that is, do empires expand because frontiers naturally attract them, or do they irrupt outward due to domestic pressures at the center. In any case, when debating the various phases of the phenomenon, taking a more complex or multicausality approach makes sense. On the other hand, determining the direction of causality is best left to individual empirical case studies.

              We approach this field of inquiry through comparative history, social theory and political analysis. Theory is always grounded in concepts. The ideal categories, fundamental concepts, and typologies of “grand theory” and “macro sociology” are invaluable for studying Empire. Yet the danger of using abstract notions, such as status, role, primitive communism, Asiatic society, feudalism, capitalism, etc, is that they are distilled from different epochs and societies, and thus overlook culturally bound facts. Finally, in order to attempt to overcome the current epistemological dichotomy between ideology and knowledge, we apply our original methodology of combining the “sociology of knowledge” with “geopolitics,” which aims to unearth the various strongholds of power and their lines of communications through material and symbolic space. The global network economy may function within a space of flows, but geopolitics revolves around place and the communication linkages that form the network nodes of the global system.

              We are indebted to the intellectual giants who emerged around the end of the 19th century and early 20th century; thinkers such as Karl Marx, whose reflections on capitalism, economic classes and bourgeois ideology, etc. are essential to understanding the significance of 1789 and the passing of power, from those whose wealth and status stems from the spoils of marauding ancestors to those who recently produced, extracted, manipulated or lent it.  Max Weber’s comparative history – designed to reveal the development of “modern rationality” – paves the way for constructing a long term but differentiated view of empire. Emily Durkheim’s analysis of how social systems function is relevant for studying empires because they are the largest units in the social kingdom in regard to social control, which is the key to Durkheim’s comparative methodology and the defining characteristic of all social facts. Finally, Benedetto Croce has shown us how “every true history is contemporary history.” Croce corrected the positivists by revealing how history is both an objective and a subjective matter, or mental construction.

              These various intellectual currents show us why imperialism needs to be criticized from both a sociological perspective, which deals with data perceived externally, and a historical one, which strives for internal comprehension. Historical facts, like sociological facts, are always interpreted from the standpoint of the present. Yet, the historian’s a priori imagination and historical account are both influenced by their contemporary relevance. This is particularly true of contentious topics or “sites of struggle” or Kampfplatz that symbolize the primacy of politics in intellectual life. Most scholarly attempts at historical revision within this hotly contested field of imperialism have coincided with a public debate, such as “neocolonialism.” This is no different today and actually reflects public attitudes and current events. “Truth” in the world of public affairs is, more or less, a matter of perception shaped through actual consequences.

              We aim to bring out all aspects of the imperial experience from the background and into the foreground of our collective consciousness. This means coordinating the phenomena of imperial expansion from an interdisciplinary perspective. In order to uncover the less apparent connections between empire and the disciplines that we critically use, our intellectual tools have to examine themselves from the context of their own history. Empire-building, for example, has historically affected the sciences and technology as well as the humanities and arts. Incidentally, geography, history, anthropology and law from their very conception in ancient Greece were influenced by imperial conquest, and it is no accident that Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, France and Britain all did their best legal work during periods of expansive, imperial enterprise. Incidentally, this orderly rise and fall of empires is clearly observed through the pillaging of archaeological sites. The current great powers always own the cultural property of past empires. During the 18th and 19th centuries these disciplines established themselves as scientific while serving as practical instruments of empire. When it comes to the natural sciences, it must be said that many great scientific discoveries have been influenced by the needs spurred on from ship building, navigation and warfare. On the one hand, technology served imperial expansion; on the other, imperial rivalry created the need for fresh technology. In any case, the pace of technological development quickened.

              The expansive and integrative scope of empires even includes language and literature. The humanities have too often glossed over the harder aspects of our finest epics, which rejoiced and embellished the deeds of their regal heroes in beautiful verse. Only a few literary critics have drawn out the allusions and references to the facts of empire in modern European literary culture. Edward Said suggested that the subjective side of empire has been energized by myth, rhetoric and narration: “the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitute the main connection between them.” Though cultural imperialism is tied to narrative and the political economy of information, it is driven by the need to extend and secure areas of vital interests or destroy communities that disrupt or threaten expansion. In short, empires help shape national, colonized and cosmopolitan identities. The constructed nature of identity involves cooperation as well as conquest.


Any theory of empire or imperialism must deal with social change. Empire, one of the oldest and most widely practiced forms of governance, originated concurrently with the emergence of civilization or what is known as the urban revolution.  In seeking “to discuss empire in its entirety across the millennia and across all the regions of the world,” Dominic Lieven, Russian historian, argues that power is the central issue regardless of “the many meanings of ‘empire’ over time and space and the great variety among imperial polities”(2005). A great variety of imperial forms have been more diverse than theorists of modernization originally claimed. Yet, the greatest distinction between empires has to do with “modernity.”

Many writers have, indeed, expressed the unity amid diversity in their account of the transition from traditional to modern societies in such terms as “folk society” as opposed to “civilization” or “status society” as opposed to “contract society” or “Gemeinschaft” against “Gesellschaft.” Despite the diversity of “traditional societies,” deep similarities lay beneath their differences. Land was the basis of the socio-economic and cultural structure and birth determined one’s position in society. Both primitive and agrarian societies shared a common resiliency towards change because of their dependence on family kinship structures that values stability and the sacred over change and secularity. Though the Faustian pace of Western development and expansion is what strikes us as historically significant, social scientists now talk of “multiple modernities.” Modernization is no longer viewed as uniform and irreversible because there have been too many local modifications and variations since the 1950s. Shmuel Eisenstadt showed how modern societies, like Japan, had achieved modernity while renewing their own cultural traditions.

According to Lieven, “Empire is first and foremost a very great power, which rules over huge territories and a multitude of peoples and one which is not legitimized by the formal consent of the people it governs”(Fathom). Lieven rightly stresses power, but his definition overlooks social change and the eccentricity of Western imperialism that was founded on naval and industrial power, but maintained and extended through the power of finance capital, which exerted an extraterritorial influence over most of the colonial world and the great Asian empires of China, India, Persia, the Ottomans and Egyptians. It is no coincidence that only the empires to survive the First World War intact were democratic ones. Yet even these had, more or less, unraveled by 1956. Since then, the costs of military occupation in non-Western territory have simply become too expensive. In short, as the international political economy becomes increasingly interlocked, power is more efficiently exercised through informal control in the way that America has since WWII, more or less, done. Indeed, because the United States seems to be based on consent, it has been called an “empire by invitation,” which is also wherein its limitations lay.

Any discussion of liberal imperialism must begin with the political and economic consequences of the Anglo-French dual revolution, which are both manifestations of a cultural revolution; namely, the secularization of modern thought that originally developed as a natural inquiry into and explanation of societal order. This historic transformation increased commercial farming, international rivalry, social misery and the division between “advanced” and “underdeveloped” societies. Perhaps, the widest phenomenon was the uprooting of peoples from the land and the breakup of Herodotus’ king: age-old-localized custom. Admittedly, the most significant consequence for our discussion is the evolution of modern bourgeois society, democracy and changes in social control: the historic transition from using suppression—the total restraint and subjection of the individual—towards manipulation. Once “the people” emerged from the historical process, mental manipulation—advertising, publicity and public relations—became more ubiquitous as well as sophisticated. Although manipulation became the main instrument for social control in western democracies, suppression remained an effective instrument outside the bourgeois zone.

In the past, the multitude was generally poor, unarmed and uninformed, and thus easy to command without consent. For centuries, mankind’s near universal social inequality and condition of suppression was primarily due to natural scarcity (impoverishment is reinforced by cataclysms and epidemics) and secondarily to the unquestioning attitude towards the underlying taboos and prohibitions of society, which are blindly obeyed through the psychic power of the super-ego that regulates individual behavior by evoking feelings of guilt. Whereas Lieven prefers traditional premodern territorial definitions of empire that emerged out of the Middle Ages over modern western European maritime ones that developed more flexible instruments of rule, Paul Kennedy, on the other hand, has recently suggested that “empire is now seen more as the exertion of undisputed influence than as the formal annexation of another land—i.e., the classical Roman juridical definition.” This point of view is in complete harmony with the social sciences and reflects the rise of the world market, the bourgeoisie class and their liberal model of politics—all of which remarkably altered political authority and the lawful use of force. Thus, by disregarding juridical categories of empire for influence, which reflects the actuality of international affairs today, we define imperialism – as the exercise of effective control over the sovereignty of another political society through formal and/or informal means.

Capitalism which stands at the center of the modernization process has simply demolished other types of polities and social stratification, such as feudalism, which was replaced by the class system. Marx genuinely regarded the state as the executive arm of the capitalist class. However, Weber correctly pointed out how the political rulers of Wilhelmine Germany belonged to the backward economic classes, who unlike the English nobility after 1832 never really drew the bourgeoisie into cooperation with it. The political structure of the liberal state is based upon the consensus of civil society, which only calls upon the armed forces when it has to cope with external or internal disorder. The extent of the consensus depends upon the ardor in which the ruled class believes in the legitimacy of the ruling class, and yet indoctrination can always be used to artificially enflame the ruling ideology. The historiography of informal empire provides a subtler analysis into the mechanics of power as well as the acceleration of social change since the Age of Revolution.

The mode in which empires conduct foreign affairs reflects their own domestic arrangements. Indeed, projecting the body politic into lawless frontiers becomes an imperial mission. Revolutionary democracy mobilized large armies, and changed the rhetoric and ideology of imperial rule. And this is why almost every movement since the 18th century has invoked “the people” in its struggle to wrest power away from allegedly arbitrary vested interests. After the French Revolution, European diplomacy and wars no longer operated within the accepted 18th century international framework because the validity of the system itself was undermined by those who had since Rousseau contested the authority and legitimacy of the domestic structure of the state.

In reality, most political revolutions have been carried out by men from the higher and middle classes. Emperor Napoleon comes to mind here, whose genius fashioned order out of the chaos of the French Revolution. The novelty of Napoleon’s imperial system stands out above its connections to the age old pattern of tyranny and violence. Napoleon’s ‘civil code’ which came into power in 1804 made the principles of the French Revolution the legal norm: freedom, equality and fraternity. This not only emancipated peasants from serfdom and handworkers from guild laws, but also opened offices up to men of merit. The code became Napoleon’s greatest instrument for his Machtpolitk. Napoleon demonstrated how the mystical relationship between combat effectiveness and ideology could be actualized through a secular faith. Finally, Napoleon created a modus operandi for managing a system of universal suffrage by manipulating public opinion through the medium of his subsidized presses in Paris and the provinces, while employing secret police to spy on social agitators.

And yet, historically, this liberal vision has not always appealed to everybody. The great manufacturing and financial interests who were opposed to the aristocratic and military castes hardly inspired the peasants, who became dependent upon the money system for survival after they had lost their function as units of self-production. For example, while the emancipation of Jews in Revolutionary France was celebrated as a new won freedom, Catholic peasants in Spain and southern Italy coldly rejected most of these values. Democratic ideology created a radically different situation compared with past wars. The peasants of yore scarcely raised an eyebrow when territories changed hands from one dynasty to another. For example, at the beginning of the 18th century, the War of Spanish Succession was nothing more than a spectacle for the peasants of Naples, who witnessed the Austrian Habsburgs replace the Spanish Bourbons. The same conservative peasant sentiment towards liberalism existed right up through the First World War. “Among all the nations of modern Europe before the World War,” writes Gaetano Mosca, “Turkey and Russia were the ones where governmental systems were most in harmony with the political ideals of the great majority in their populations. Only a small educated minority were systematically opposed to the rule of the czar and the sultan.(229)” Indeed, many sons of the Russian nobility participated in revolutionary activity, while the mass populace remained essentially apathetic. The peasants continued to admire the nobility and traditional rulers, while western proletarians were organizing to resist economic oppression against the feudal and industrial barons; they were, thus, like the traditionalists, in favor of “collective solidarity.”

Ruling without the consent of the governed was normal before the 19th century and the rise of liberal capitalism. Before the English “working class” came into existence the multitude of men in the 18th century were commonly referred to as “plebs” and were neither considered as a class since they lacked class-consciousness. The ruling oligarchy only expected dissent from the upper strata of society. The governed masses across the globe before the 19th century identified themselves in terms of religion, not by nationality or class. Alien rule for the great uneducated masses was normally interpreted as rule by another religion, rather than a different nationality. Popular revolts were, therefore, usually limited. In short, national and class-consciousness did not become critical until the growing interdependence of the capitalist economy made distinct regions and peoples aware of their subordination to the work-discipline of industrial capitalism. In Germany, the educated, academic, bureaucratic and professional men, who had for generations occupied a place just under the aristocracy, were “disturbed by the rise of a society that accorded equal or superior distinction to men of crasser aims and morals”(Stern, xxvi).

The British oligarchy in the 19th century showed much more prudence, skill and tenacity in preserving Empire through a policy of co-optation than its continental rivals whose survival depended upon coercion. While the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire did everything possible to restore world order after 1815, such as interfere in other countries domestic affairs to forestall social unrest, Britain in its insular safety pursued a policy of offshore balancing; for it only felt threatened, if Europe were to fall under the domination of a single hegemonic power. Britain became a permanent part in the concert of Europe, while following a policy of “non-interference” in the domestic affairs of European states. In short, Britain was busy with ruling most of the world outside Europe.

The pressures of imperial rivalry brought about many internal changes within European society. Imperial power depends upon a nation’s determination to stay on top of the international armaments race, which implies commanding the productive capacity of its economic system as well as paying for expensive military appropriations, such as large naval construction programs, over the long term without going bankrupt. Here Spencer’s division between militant and industrial societies illustrates an important historical point about British imperialism: namely, militant societies leave no room for individual initiative and private enterprise since the state pervades every aspect of society. In militant societies individuals serve the state. Liberal capitalism and industrialism develop naturally in Lockean societies, where property rights are secure and individual enterprise valued. Political liberalism developed in Britain because this island power had already settled its security problem through naval power by 1588 and its Hobbesian problem through the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In short, Britain maintained it global imperial advantage well into the 20th century.

The consequences of industrialization reveal a close correlation between change in modes of production and social structure. Since society is composed of mutually dependent parts, a change in one part causes change in other parts. The kind of productivity required for economic takeoff created revolutionary social changes; namely, great upheavals at the bottom of society: proletarianization—shaping men into an industrial work force through wage-slavery—created more social discontent than the non-industrial work done by serfs, who had for successive generations worked the same land. The rigid norms of industrialism and urbanization ran against mankind’s traditional life patterns; face-to-face social discourse was replaced by the impersonal conditions of an urban existence. Though this social upheaval and cultural despair created a conservative revolt throughout Europe, “only in Germany did it become a decisive intellectual and political force.” Fritz Stern believes “that this particular reaction to modernity [as embodied in the rational, liberal and capitalistic society, which in its political form was shaped by the French Revolution] was deeply embedded in German thought and society, and that this curiously idealistic, unpolitical discontent constitutes the main link between all that is venerable and great in the German past and the triumph of national socialism”(xxiii).

Since the beginning of the 19th century, the alienation associated with the modern industrial system was intensified by the ups and downs of the market economy. The booms and slumps have been correlated with technological innovations in manufacturing. Moreover, real wealth is made by entrepreneurs who invest in disequilibriums—imbalances or opportunities in the economic system created by new technology. Despite the misery and corruption of the second half of the 19th century, an economy of scale and scope began to emerge, which also made the captains of industry enormous fortunes. In order to avoid the industrial inferno of late 19th century radicalism, foresighted American businessmen began to grasp the trend towards long term productiveness and the necessity of developing subtler ways of managing men.

Henry Ford’s innovations in production, management and marketing at the beginning of the 20th century transformed America. Ford devised the assembly-line form of production; by breaking down work into parts, he could cheaply employ armies of unskilled workers. After the First World War, American productive methods were brought to Europe. Meanwhile, Commander Trotsky of the Red Army was forcing the unskilled masses of the newly revolutionary Soviet Union to work throughout the 1920s. While the “militarization of labor” was instrumentalized through terror, compulsory labor was slowly disappearing in core capitalist industrial areas. Once the economic conditions of society reach a higher stage of development, persuasion and consent become much more effective instruments of social control than coercion – particularly, in terms of skilled labor. The pragmatic Americans created a class-conscious industrial-gentry and an ideology of consumerism, which formed the two pillars of the corporatist or fordist strategy. Ford sold his cars cheap enough so every worker could hope to buy one. Commercialism was stage-managed by sophisticated advertising, which simultaneously deflected man’s energy away from the roots of his dissatisfaction while redirecting it towards the consumer goods of mass industrial society. Except for the depression and war years, the West has hardly taken a pause from its largely unconscious consumption-related behavior. The communist command economies simply never delivered the goods.


Idealists and materialists both agree that in every time and place, a body politic—from the simplest community to the sovereign state—is divided between rulers and ruled, leaders and led. This chasm in human relationships between rulers and ruled is mirrored once again on the grandest scale through empires, which is troubling to anthropologist who attempt to determine where one social system begins and another ends. In other words, the attempt to discover pristine communities to study is distorted in that societies everywhere have already been caught up in the imperial web. However, let us look at the isolated example of a primitive society, where we come closest to laboratory conditions. A body politic is a structure, not a system; it consists of “in” and “out” groups, who compete for privileged positions; thus, only a minority of a polity can exists at the top. The power of any ruling minority is constituted by superior organization that what distinguishes them from the mass of men who are incapable of acting uniformly in concert. The reign of mob-rule is always limited geographically and temporally because a mob can be dealt with one by one. A ruling class may be subdivided into a multiplicity of graded subclasses, depending on the rules for membership. Order is maintained by those who regulate the rules of domestic competition for social position—formal qualifications have depended upon noble birth, property, religious affiliation and individual merit. Social mobility throughout history has been determined by material conditions, cultural norms and individual ability. On the other hand, whatever the type of political organization, pressures arising from the discontent of the governed masses always exert an influence on the ruling class, regardless of the ‘political formula’ or principle of sovereignty.

The essential difference between static and dynamic societies lies in cultural activity. Our first example has to do with the cultural mutations relating to the urban revolution, such as the domestication of plants and animals and the division of labor, which dramatically changed the course of world history. Primitive societies, for example, are oriented towards the older generation and prestigious dead ancestors and so rarely change by their own initiative. Class tends to harden into caste as the warrior and priestly classes strengthen their roles. For example, Mosca wrote: “In primitive societies that are still in the early stages of organization, military valor is the quality that most readily opens access to the ruling, or political, class”(195). Cultural norms governing a polity change either through compulsion or when individuals respond to challenges within the environment, allowing society to make advances in organization.

Whenever money and the written word enter a society, the cake of custom is slowly eaten away. When communities free themselves of custom and unconscious compulsion, and direct their attention towards creative personalities and pioneers, they become dynamic and less deferent. Yet Robert Michels has shown how every constructed organization implies the tendency towards oligarchy. “There is no essential contradiction between the doctrine that the history is the record of a continued series of class struggles and the doctrine that class struggles invariably culminate in the creation of new oligarchies which undergo fusion with the old”(254). Since the masses are permanently incapable of self-government, they are predisposed to devoting “all their energies to effecting a change of masters,” which Michels speaks of as a tragicomedy process.

The Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto understood this domestic movement in terms of a “circulation of elites.” In dynamic societies the rhythm of leadership, consists of successive phases in which change gradually shifts hands from conservative-regressive groups to adaptive-innovative ones. Since aristocracies do not last, there has always been class circulation, mixing and continuous transformation. The velocity of the movement depends upon “the supply of and demand for certain social elements”(266). In general, warfare, industry and commerce set the requisites activities bearing on social equilibrium. Historically, the propertied and educated classes usurped the privileges from the hereditary aristocracy by dominating the coercive force of law—the courts, the police, and the regulatory agencies—and great economic enterprises. By the middle of the 19th century, capitalists and labor replaced emperor, king and lords at the center of Western and Central European society. The division of people into “two nations” of owners and working-class coincided with a change in the field of ideology; namely, the thirst for universal suffrage and political incorporation of new groups regardless of lineage or wealth.

Drawing on the elitist critique of Marxism, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that the division of power necessary for the advancement of political and economic liberalism altered the whole fabric of society—affecting every strata from the structural base to the superstructure. Gramsci concisely divided the superstructure into two great floors: “that which can be called ’civil society’, i.e. all the organizations which are commonly called ‘private’, and that of ‘political society’ or the State, which corresponds to the function of ‘hegemony’ which the ruling class exercises over the whole of society and to that of ‘direct rule’ or of command which is expressed in the State and in ‘juridical’ government”(124). Ever since the historic struggle between civil and political society struck a balance by abolishing feudalism and the absolutist state, both floors have increasingly interpenetrated with another, especially towards the top stratum. The modern state’s exclusive monopoly on the use of violence rests on its claim to guarantee the universal principles of due process of law and justice, and has the legal power to ensure coercion through its disciplinarian organs on those who refuse consent.

The imperial period at the turn to the 20th century is historically significant because imperialism is connected with mass democracy—a process that is ultimately powered from below. Soon after the emancipation and enfranchisement of the people implicit in universal suffrage became a mass experience and reality, the foundations of power became populist. The power of the masses is real—popular beliefs have the validity of material forces. Public sentiment is a force that exists independently of the mass media. To avoid domestic chaos, public passion must be accommodated. Since democracies have, in principle, abolished state censorship and suppression of dissent, leaders are left with only one option; namely, deflecting public attention away from important political and economic matters and redirecting focus into cultural issues, celebrity politics or simply entertainment.

The fascist quickly understood that the masses do not want responsibility, but would rather be told what to do, what to believe and what is really true. Unfortunately, the American psyche is not so different today. The bedrock of the electorate hardly reads, watches a lot of television and has little interest or time for politics. Though sovereignty in the West now resides with “the people,” postmodern princes have learned how to carefully exercise hegemony over the masses by manufacturing spontaneous consent through television, a medium wherein perception and appearance constitute reality. Communications scholars have shown how information overkill paradoxically results in nearly the same situation as censorship—truth gets drowned out in a flood of noise. Control of the political content of television is the most powerful means of preventing issues and ideas from becoming part of the ebb and flow of public debate. Despite the concentration of power, mass conformity and malleability of public opinion, democratization challenges the legitimacy of governments everywhere, and is the chief reason why the terms “power” and “influence” have, more or less, come to express the same reality.

Surely, talk about political, economic, social and psychological pressure is a metaphor for describing “influence” (direct and indirect) in human affairs. What does language like businesses are being squeezed or hammered by the low “China price” really express? None of these expressions refer to a natural physical force. Our subsequent perception of society has made influence the dominant trope within the social sciences—the root metaphor of pressure is adapted from the terminology of the natural sciences. Human pressures arise out of the implicit tension between individuality and society, i.e. the selfish-interests of individuals. Democratic societies—wherein the value of individuals is explicitly respected—are according to liberal theory governed by the rule of law.

In reality, democracies are largely a matter of pressure-group politics in which innumerable interest groups seek to influence public opinion, public authorities and executive bodies to promote their objectives through legal or criminal means. Internationally, humanly applied pressure, then, is about projecting both material and psychological power, which was transformed by the twin revolutions of the 19th century. While the industrial revolution changed the traditional geopolitical sources of power, such as demographics, weaponry and wealth, the egalitarian revolution increased the tacit dimension of power, such as knowledge and bureaucratic efficiency. Even theories of manipulation have been refined by models drawn from the field of communications theory, which insists that perception and reception are creative acts. The old stimulus-response models in which the transmitter of messages directly influences the behavior of recipients have been replaced by models which acknowledge the ability of recipients to interpret messages selectively. Scholars, now, speak of influencing the behavior of a citizen-consumer’s existing tendencies and shaping world-views rather than outright manipulation.


Definitions of power are no longer limited to the capacity to apply physical force. There are deeper underlying structures that make the social construction of reality possible, such as the ability to supply finance and services, or to use symbolic power to shape norms, articulate collective goals, establish organizational frameworks and institutions. In short, there are four sources of social power: military, political, economic and ideological. The various forms of power are interconnected and cannot be reduced to one underlying type, such as the traditional emphasis on physical force, or the Marxist notion of economic power derived from the ownership and control of the means of production, or probably the oldest form of power, social status or prestige—ideologically, embedded in a sacred framework. Those who have positions in the great institutions that monopolize the means of violence, administration, production and ideas have the most institutional power. Whether or not a propertied or bureaucratic class ultimately controls them, is simply secondary. In sum, the power elite of the capitalist system exercise all sources of social power in conjunction with one another; sometimes converting wealth into force, or knowledge into wealth, depending on the aim. Skilled and versatile practitioners wield power efficiently; that is, they choose the tool that produces maximum effect for minimum cost.

Western society has been moving towards greater rationalization and efficiency in not only economic and technological terms, but also in forms of social control. Power as it relates to macro-social control has been generalized into three broad analytic categories: physical, material and symbolic. Individual action is always structured within the two dimensions of time and space and is related to the strains of society. Everything that affects the body is physical, and application of physical means of control is referred to as coercive power. Material rewards consist of goods and services, and the use of material means of control is referred to as utilitarian power. Symbols—the use of which does not constitute a physical threat or a claim on material rewards—are objects of the mind which regulate self esteem-maintenance. The use of symbols for control is referred to as normative power. The application of symbolic means of control tends to persuade people, while that of material means tends to build up their self-oriented interests into conformity, and that of physical means forces people to comply.

Each kind of power and means of control produce different consequences. Coercive power is the most alienating; normative power the least and tends to generate more commitment than utilitarian power, which in turn generates more commitment than coercive power. In short, coercion is not conducive to productive efficiency. Though informal means of control are more cost effective than the use of force, coercion is still the ultimate deterrent and a powerful means of social control, especially the legitimate use of force. Now, money has become the most flexible tool for social control because it has the power to both reward and punish. Western society’s entrepreneurial, business and managerial classes cannot be commanded to performinstead they have to be induced to work through utilitarian and symbolic power. The working classes, on the other hand, are more or less forced to work—they have to feed themselves.

Most empires usually employ more than one kind of power. We argue that the successful emergence of maritime empires over traditional land empires coincides with the shift from a reliance on a strong central authority and autocratic command towards control based on the dynamic division of power. We argue that the modern stage of historical development in Western society has undermined the ideology of traditional empires whose dominance in the world was primarily maintained through superior arms. In the past, definitions of empires were limited to the state, but empires have always exercised influence through both force and consent upon both political and civil society. In fact, it is much more cost effective to establish influence over foreign nations through informal collaborative mechanisms, such as money markets.


Empire is a political mechanism for establishing control over regions and peoples by a single polity. William Langer the American historian of diplomacy and international relations defined imperialism as “simply the rule or control, political or economic, direct or indirect, of one state, nation or people over other similar groups, or perhaps one might say the disposition, urge or striving to establish such rule or control. Taken in this sense, imperialism is probably as old as recorded history”(67). The process of imperialism is as old as civilization, and exists whenever one polity controls the effective political sovereignty of another society. Imperialism, like espionage and counter espionage, will always exist—only the transitory conditions change, especially in the techno-economic sphere, which has developed in a linear direction from pre-industrial, industrial to post-industrial society.

From the earliest times the political relations among nations have followed an imperial pattern. The rise and fall of empires are great revolutions in human affairs. Strong nations have always imposed their will on weaker nations. However, there has been little agreement on the motives that impel states to expand. Factors have been analyzed in terms of mankind’s fear and security, lust for power, riches, glory and god, as well as nationalism and patriotism. In most cases, however, two causes for expansion come under scrutiny: the demand for political security and economic growth. We emphasize the interaction between politics and economics—neither is a cause in itself. Politics interacts with markets and the private sector, and economics limits the options of policymakers. As the world moves towards a single market, historians usually acknowledge the growing importance of economic factors on the distribution of power. More specifically, we keep our eye on what sociologist Daniel Bell calls the techno-economic sphere of society because its development helps explain why empires differ in their manner of birth, growth and decline.

              Perhaps, the best way to understand imperial expansion is by comparing the Pax Romana and Pax Britannia. Dubious analogies have been made between the British and Roman empires. Nevertheless, Rome inspired and served Britain as a model once Britain became conscious of its imperial purpose. The men who created the second British Empire, almost without exception, had a classical education, which familiarized them with the Roman Empire. Although both grew without premeditation or planning and eventually pursued imperial policies, it is difficult to say exactly when these policies became fully conscious. Moreover, the historical origins of their respective expansions differ considerably in both cause and effect.

Roman expansion originated in her struggles to survive. From the beginning, victory or defeat meant either dominion or subjection. The government of the Roman Republic was fully involved from the outset. In contrast, Great Britain’s expansion originated from private enterprise, which was hardly official. In fact, the Crown liked to maintain a sense of plausible deniability. Geography gave Britain both a commercial and strategic comparative advantage in relation to competitors, though actualization depended upon the knowledge of and capacity for marine transportation. Since transport by water is cheaper than by road, Britain’s multitudinous network of water communications encouraged commerce. National defense was the affair of the navy, which, unlike an army, required greater cooperation and could not be used for domestic repression. Britain’s freedom and course was tied to the “command of the seas.” Nations, like Great Britain, whose system of values shifted from feudal honor to having a good credit rating, explains, in part, why Britain successfully expanded overseas, while the debt ridden French monarchy fell. Financial policy was motivated by profit, and placed a check on imperial policy. Financial and political elites worked together. The City of London’s prosperity during the 18th century mirrored the military and diplomatic victories that expanded the empire.  

Rome neither exclusively followed a policy of enrichment based on trade, nor expanded with the modern notion of acquiring markets for export. Rome took possession of territories for political reasons, so that raw material could be imported. Max Weber included the role of capitalism in antiquity in his discussion of ‘the economic foundation of imperialism.’ He argued that Roman expansion “was undoubtedly very strongly, though not exclusively, determined by capitalist interest; and these interests were above all the interests of the tax-farmers, office hunters and land speculators. They were not the interests of groups pursuing a particularly intensive trade in goods”(164). Roman history does not show any real parallel with the kind of initiative allowed to Britain’s trading companies that ventured to Africa, America and India or to the sort of development that followed from the results produced. Britain’s policy of transmarine territorial annexation began in a competitive search for trade routes in which the economic motive was prominent, not from a need to feel secure. The proverbial flag followed trade. Although the British empire was short lived in comparison to Rome, its late nineteenth century bourgeois capitalist expansion uniquely drew the economic periphery into a single interdependent world system. Rome came to an end when the native body politic was overwhelmed by foreign elements. Britain, on the other hand, could no longer afford empire after the Second World War, or stem the ideological tide for national self-determination that both Soviet and American rhetoric had launched.

Though American power does not contain the formal structure of imperial powers, it remains imperial in practice. Strategic and geopolitical considerations continue to determine the substance and focus of power politics, which contradicts the United States’ internal political arrangements and rhetoric. Now, after decolonization, the challenge of establishing control over an area, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, is that it appears to the indigenous population as if the U.S. is pursuing territorial annexation, which is reminiscent of the age of high or classical imperialism. This kind of situation quickly leads to a loss of popular legitimacy and ends up exerting an enormous amount of international and domestic pressure against the U.S. government.


We are taking up P.J Cains and A.G. Hopkins’ “case for placing imperialism and empires at the center of the study of world history and specifically the history of globalization”(664). Typically, “globalization” refers to all the forces that are driving the world economy and to legislative, monetary, regulatory and educational harmonization that have been occurring among disparate self-governing states with little coercion from any one central authority. In the 1990s the term was popularized by journalists, economists, sociologists and political scientists as the flow of peoples, goods and services increased. Most thinkers approximate its origins with the shift from state mercantilism to open, free-trading policies and to new developments within technology after the Second World War. Others believe that globalization arose in the 1970s, which coincides to the notion of a post-industrial society, communications and information revolution, and the oil and capitalist crisis.

The globalization of capital markets has been forcing municipal, regional and national governments around the world to compete for international investment, pressuring all governments to reduce their deficits, taxes, and expenditures as well as privatizing many public services. Still others think that Anglobalization was introduced by Thatcher and Reagan as a new strategy to discredit state-assisted capitalism and to weaken the sovereignty of Third World nations so that they would become even more dependent on rich countries’ and their chosen instruments of control—the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yet the immediate preconditions of globalization lay with technology, particularly the rapid diffusion of distance-abolishing information technologies.

The dominant metaphor of globalization is the emergence, expansion, thickening and tightening of webs—or connections linking people to one another. The theoretical foundation of globalization is known as convergence theory in which distinct racial and ethnically constructed primary communities composed of villages, tribes and chiefdoms become increasingly entangled within a global cosmopolitan web. Historically, loose networks of small roving bands merged with settled agricultural communities and were eventually woven into larger linkages, such as states and empires. Overall, local, national and regional economies of the world have been converging, and improving the conditions of the global market and world-wide production. This process has no precise definition, but, in the widest sense, means the increasing interconnectedness and integration of human communities. Modern European empires had by the end of the 19th century gradually forced the world into a single community with decreasing diversification. The general direction of history has been moving towards greater social cooperation among expanding ingroups—both through consent and force—that has been driven by the realities of techno-economic and politico-military competition among outgroups. Globalization has throughout most of history been promoted by nationalism and imperialism. Many economists have simply downplayed the fact that empires have always been the central networks of global convergence and have managed the military, political and economic sectors of the world systems.

Some advocates of globalization would have us believe that it not only represents the end of history, but also the end of geography. Though there is an implicit historical and geographical claim being made, namely the novelty and longevity as well as the spatiality of the phenomena, historians and geographers have been uncannily absent from the debate. Most current popular discourse on globalization remains ahistorical. Only a handful of historians seriously looked at these claims before 2000. One of the primary reasons why historians had not participated in the debate lies in the dominant tradition of writing history within national boundaries; the omission being world and imperial historians, whose field is supranational history. Geographer Neil Smith has also pointed out that ‘globalization’ is fundamentally a geographical issue, yet it has rhetorically been represented as total spacelessness. The presupposition that globalization is powered from some trans-geographical location is pure ideology.

Manfred Steger differentiates ‘globalization’ the process from ‘globalism’ the ideology of globalization. “Like all social processes,” Steger argues, “globalization contains an ideological dimension filled with a range of norms, claims, beliefs, and narratives about the phenomenon itself”(93). The human art of politics is embarrassingly corrupt, so it is subordinated to the abstract science of economics in which money markets mysteriously determine policy; statesmen and politicians should not interfere with the omniscient judgment and operations of the market. Globalists, like Thomas Friedman, mostly obscure the phenomena by claiming that this dynamic process embodies a fundamental and inevitable technological development. Rather than stressing the conscious policies of Anglo-American political elites, Friedman’s Marxist technologically-determined version of globalization celebrates the shift of the world’s production to low-cost nations, like China and India, without explaining its underlying historical causes.

 Globalization for John Gray simply represents the latest phase of worldwide industrialization. “There is no systematic connection between globalization and the free market.” Industrial societies, for example, developed in both the United States and the Soviet Union despite their diverse political and economic systems. The introduction of industrialization in Western Europe and America may have been preceded by democratic and capitalistic revolutions, but this did not prevent industrialization from being imposed by fiat on peasant countries lacking both capitalism and democratic political institutions. Technology and cheap labor are driving wages down, but economic growth does not depend purely on population increase. If it did, then Africa, Latin America, Indonesia and the Philippines would now be rich. Nationalism according to Gray has been a key factor behind every state’s economic takeoff, “and is doing the same in China and India at the present time.” On the other hand, nationalism leads to geopolitical tensions that materialize around the competitive struggle for transport routes and supply lines to the planet’s raw materials. The interdependency of international trade and the delicate web of credit among industrialized nations hinges upon the preservation of international peace. Historically, the international framework for globalization has been provided by the Pax Britannica and Pax Americana that gentlemanly capitalism uniquely produced. Because the current phase of globalization has, truly, become global, it is threatened by cowboy capitalism and the race to secure energy supplies—the Achilles’ heel of globalization.

Nevertheless, there are discontinuities in history. An intense awareness of historic change occurred within the span of a couple generations. The Second World War and its aftermath ushered in the transition from a European-centered world to a world-wide system of international politics, based on a nuclear balance of power. Every generation born since Hiroshima and Nagasaki has crossed the threshold into a new age. This epochal change coincided with decolonization and the rise of global communism and multinational corporations or two ideological blocks, electronics and automation.

The exact date of contemporary globalization remains contentious, but since the fall of Communist block, its intensification in scope and scale has increased qualitatively. Bruce Mazlish believes this qualitative change stems from the greater synchronicity and synergy among global factors hitherto unknown, and is what distinguishes the New Global History from ordinary world history. In other words, contemporary history is world history in the fullest sense and if we are going to understand the forces driving events, a global perspective must be adopted. Yet, the forces driving globalization are at root scientific, technological and what Schumpeter called “institutionalized innovation,” making the second industrial revolution the starting-point for the study of contemporary society; the age of steel, electricity, chemicals and oil leads to the information age.

Now, this new periodization or division of epochs, which began shortly after the Second World War, is governed by the greater interaction of global forces upon local reality; nothing that happens in one part of the world any longer occurs without impacting other parts. The sense of living upon “spaceship earth” or within a “global village” epitomizes postmodern consciousness. Marshall McLuhan wrote that such postmodern images, “could not have happened before the electric age gave us the means of instant, total field awareness”(56), which the many satellites circling our planet have sensuously provided us.


              Within Western historiography, two incompatible traditions of writing universal or global history have existed. The first one was pagan and cyclical: it emphasized the rise and fall of empires which was believed to be a result of unchanging human nature. The second was Judeo-Christian and linear: it followed sacred scripture until the Enlightenment when it became secularized and progressive. Though Romantics reintroduced cyclic theories into historical discourse, most historiography was limited to the ancient Mediterranean, of which Rome was central. Yet the ancient world encompassed more than Mediterranean civilization; for example, Rome had links with other core civilizations or empires.

The philosophy of history that arose in Europe during the 18th century was built upon the dim consciousness of global unity and how a market-system produces a social good out of the unintended consequences of self-interested behavior. Europeans had just started viewing themselves from the outside as well as from the point of view of their own prehistoric origins. This perception was first influenced by the descriptions of new worlds, which came from reports of sixteenth and seventeenth century explorers, Jesuit missionaries and business agents. As global unification itself was occurring, some thinkers recognized global forces—Adam Smith wrote that “the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization.” Smith’s “invisible hand” and Hegel’s “cunning of reason” represent an echo of divine providence. The Neapolitan professor of rhetoric Giambattista Vico in 1725 had theorized that men themselves constructed a world according to a divine plan without any reflection. Vico’s universal theory of human history which argued that – “The world of nations is in fact a human creation.” – was indeed radical considering that the Holy Inquisition was still in force.

Enlightenment thinkers used the reports of the unexplored dark continents of the world to shed light on similarities between contemporaneous heathen societies and the pristine religious beliefs and practices of Greco-Roman Civilization. Instead of interpreting history as a series of individual or repetitive events, writers began to make out the contours of world history, such as the transformation of life from feudal to modern society that was occurring in Europe. Indeed, the modern philosophy of history begins with the controversial conception of qualitative differences in human modes of perception between primitive and civilized mentalities. By the late 19th century, social anthropologists were using comparative studies to emphasize the psychic unity of mankind over the sublime gulf that separates savage from civilized man. This gulf was explained in evolutionary terms—as a process of general development from simplicity to complexity.  By the mid 20th century, the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn wrote: “All human societies, from the ‘most primitive’ to the ‘most advanced’ constitute a continuum”(266).

However, we cannot speak about 19th century social theory without mentioning the influence of the Romantic Movement, which was triggered by European events. Georg Lucaks argues that “It was the French Revolution, the revolutionary wars and the rise and fall of Napoleon, which for the first time made history a mass experience.... In its defensive struggle against the coalition of absolute monarchies, the French Republic was compelled to create mass armies. The qualitative difference between mercenary and mass armies is precisely a question of their relation with the mass of the population”(23). The quantitative expansion of war created a qualitatively new situation, a broadening of men’s horizons across the whole of Europe, who began to comprehend the historical determinedness of their own existence. Finally, the Napoleonic wars awakened a wave of national feeling outside of France that created an interest in national history, folk ways and primitive societies.

Though human affairs transcend civilizational boundaries, discourse on world history was geographically limited to Europe until around the time of the First World War. The nation-state had throughout the 19th century captured the imagination of the first professional historians. The rest of the world had to wait for Oswald Spengler to publish his metaphysical, de-centering morphology of world history in 1918, before it could really enter the picture. Rapid social disintegration between the interwar years inspired philosophical minded authors to write about a plurality of separate civilizations around the globe in a single narrative. Arnold Toynbee’s discovery of a plot, a rhythm, and a predestined pattern in history remains unconvincing despite his erudition. Arguments for general properties, uniformities and continuity are too abstract. World history must take account of fortuitous contingencies. Chance occurs in war, again and again, and changes the outcome of events. Neither the commercial nor the intellectual life of mankind is intelligible without reference to its military history. Military and diplomatic historians have shown how men’s actions are governed by passion rather than reason; and passion is too unpredictable to conform to any pattern—meta-logic is a product of meta-narrative.

William McNeill salvaged an important thread in Toynbee’s narrative of world history, by concisely pointing out a continuous web of events in Eurasia, or what he calls the Oikumene, and what Sir Halford Mackinder in 1904 called the World Island: the geographical zone stretching from eastern Asia to western Europe and southward to include south Asia and northern Africa. The unification of the world was historically unique. The conquest and closing of all frontiers meant that there was not any open-space left for outlets of surplus populations. McNeill’s work united the two traditions of historiography by showing the local rise and fall of particular empires against a larger transcivilizational pattern of relationships and processes that have interacted through time from an initial core in Mesoptamia. Since the worldwide system of production and consumption transcends regional, national and civilizational boundaries, MacNeill has come to focus on communications networks which unite peoples, nations and states, as well as liberalism and Marxism, the two great intellectual traditions of 20th century historiography. In short, communications forms the skeleton of world history. Transport and communication have always provided the basic frame within which human societies must exist. Communication between civilizations is exemplified by the opening of the Seidenstraße between China, India, Persia, Egypt and Rome during classical antiquity and its disintegration of the Silk Route after the Mongol era.


The regular trading of luxury goods over established long distance routes dramatically increased, once humans began to settle down in one place, which incited man to improve his transporting capacity and in turn led to greater specialization and productiveness. Neolithic agriculture and metallurgy led to a division of labor and social hierarchy. As primary needs were met, man accumulated surpluses in goods and distant specialities. Lewis Mumford has shown how all of these functions related to “a new urban institution, the market, itself largely a product of the securities and regularities of urban life”(City, 71). More important than the transportation and distribution of goods in the market was its by-product: the communication system of recording market transactions: linguistic and numerical notation and the invention of the alphabet. 

 In ancient times, communication and transportation networks were part of one emerging infrastructure. Long distance trade required the establishment of settlements wherever environmental variations along routes required the transfer of goods from one mode of transportation to another. Trade in goods and the migration of peoples at first moved through the earth’s natural arteries, such as rivers, valleys and coastlines. Many cities originated as settlements, trading-posts, military encampments, forts or bases at break up points in the transportation system of the time. Empires eventually integrated rule over vast areas containing former independent units linked only by trade relations. Ancient communication-nets, such as Roman roads and sea routes, facilitated rapid movement of mass quantities of military, political and economic goods necessary for an integrated political system. As empires expand they either try to exploit and control existing communication-nets (in which they are embedded), or forge new ones.

The scale has dramatically changed since Gutenberg and Columbus initiated the long Communications Revolution during the 15th century. Any list of the long Communications Revolution must, also, include the father of modern accounting, the largely unremembered Italian Fransican monk, Fra Luca Paccioli, who in 1494 published the  Summa Arithmetica, which included the first detailed description of double entry bookkeeping. Oswald Spengler ranked it in importance with Columbus’ discovery of the New World and Copernicus’ theory of the earth rotating around the sun. Goethe described it as “one of the finest discoveries of the human intellect.” A version of the text had reached England and Scotland in the Elizabethan age, and there flourished as Britain embarked on its great era of exploration, with joint stock companies financing the ventures. It became even more important during the 18th century, when the laws on the limited liability of corporations were passed. All modern accounting depends on the principles he enumerated. Our contemporary computerized accounting machinery could not function without them, as well as the great corporations which would flounder in a fiscal fog.

 Its velocity remarkably increased around 1850 with the advent of Paleotechnology—the burning of carbon energy—and the advent of power-driven ships, the railway, telegraph, radio, etc. The term ‘communications’ used to refer to what we now call transportation because originally transportation networks like roads, canals, railways and steamships carried information as well as people and cargo. Steamboats followed the routes laid out by nature, while railroads formed the routes themselves, their construction were not completely constrained by the natural environment. Railroads historically exemplify both human inventiveness and cultural autonomy: On the Frontier the railway had the power to make a path of settlement, bringing forth populations where there had been none. Just as submarine cables naturally followed shipping routes, telegraph lines developed alongside railway tracks. The passage of information still depends on the good and efficient maintenance of the lines of physical transport, which carry information from point A to point B. The new terminology of dividing transportation from communications occurred after the invention of the telegraph and wireless. In short, information flows quickened with the emergence of steam and electrical communication infrastructure.

              Electronic media is not new, though it is often assumed to originate “only with the institutional birth of film and broadcasting and the development of large audiences in the twentieth century,” [1] the application of electricity to communication media had already begun during the second half of the 19th century. Daniel Boorstin called the information phase of the communications revolution the great, but inconspicuous Graphic Revolution. According to Boorstin, inventions like printing, electric telegraph, photography, wireless, film and television reflect: “Mans ability to make, preserve, transmit, and disseminate precise images—images of print, of men and landscapes and events, of the voices of men and mobs.” Since the 19th century, “a larger and larger proportion of our experience, of what we read and see and hear, has come to consist of pseudo-events”(12).

Considering the whole experience of visual culture, Walter Lippmann suggested nothing compares with motion pictures as a visualization aid. Photographic pictures have a real immediacy and authority over the imagination; they make building up imagery much easier than the evocation of words. The man in the street’s world is mostly made up of images from mass media—the eyes, ears and mind of modern society. Since propaganda developed with new mass media, it has become central for social control. Techniques for managing perception appeal to sub-rational and even sub-conscious levels of human motivation. Radio allowed state authorities to centrally penetrate the daily consciousness of semiliterate populations in the transition from traditional to modern society. On the other hand, the mass media in democratic-capitalist societies has been more influenced by market pressures than by the state—except for matters involving national security. Besides analyzing the modern means of communication, sociology looks at the social institutions of media, especially news organizations.

Arnold Toynbee argued the technological means of communication and transportation have made the world conductive to every form of human intercourse. However, no eventual political unification which the new world-wide network of communications foreshadows has occurred. He suggested that “political unity might be imposed by the familiar method of the knock-out blow, but the price of unification by force, in terms of moral, psychological, social, and political (not to mention material) devastation would be relatively higher than it had been in other cases of the same kind”(24). Though the world is now linked together horizontally, there is no central government, or authority, whose command is hierarchically structured. The United Nations is the only organization that comes close to such an ideal, but in reality it is toothless. In terms of hard power, the U.S. comes closest, but it does not have legitimate command over many parts of the world, especially Russia and China who are permanent members of the Security Council.


The archeological record since pre-historical times reveals the existence of long distance communications networks of peoples, commodities, ideas and diseases passing through different centers of administrative control. Hunter-gather bands, for example, started long-distance trading over 40,000 years ago. Today, we call these material and nonmaterial transcivilizational exchanges globalization. The ancient empires of the Middle East were the first to accumulate capital, and capture and organize communication-nets. However, this process did not begin to become truly global until around the 15th century with the rise of long-distance overseas empires. Yet, even then, trade and cultural exchanges occurred within an imperial center and its colonies. International trade became trade within an empire. Both mercantilism and the Westphalia system were based on the principle that no authority operated above the inter-sate system. The pressures of war and trade between European nation-states stimulated science and technology—reinforcing the rise of global empires. When Britain shifted from state mercantilism to free market policies in the 19th century “Free-Trade Imperialism” was born. In contrast, to established principles, the new metaphysical entity of the “world market” subjected the old laws operating within and between states to its higher metaphysical authority. The dynamic history of the last five hundred years radically altered traditional ancient political and economic relations and practices. Colonialism and imperialism have mixed up the categories of exploitation with industrial progress, development and benefaction. The money that imperial Britain spent in India and other parts of her empire is difficult to categorize.

Economically, globalization means the tendency towards the integration of the world into a single market. The driving force behind globalization is free market capitalism in which everything gravitates towards the bottom-line. American-style shareholder capitalism dominates the world’s financial markets and influences the decisions of CEOs, who are not free from the pressure of investors and fund managers—who are hungry for dividends and takeovers. This process is more than economic for it also transforms political, social, and cultural relationships across all kinds of geographical borders. In cultural matters, the ideology of the bottom-line tends to reinforce the dumbing-down of society. Yet the most overlooked point in much of the debate on globalization is the historical fact that political decisions made inside the Anglo-American empire created the process in the first place. The consequences of power balancing and global economic forces are always related to human agency. Considering the relationship between empire and globalization, Niall Ferguson rhetorically asks, how did the liberal legal, financial and administrative institutions spread around the world as far as they did? 

                     In a few rare cases there was a process of conscious, voluntary imitation. But more often than not, European institutions were imposed by main force, often literally at gun point. In theory, globalization may be possible in an international system of multilateral cooperation, spontaneously arising as Cobden envisaged. But it may equally well be possible as a result of coercion if the dominant power in the world favors economic liberalism. Empire is the instance that springs to mind.(xxiii)


Indeed, markets hardly work without strong governmental institutions. Instead of stressing groundless ideological assertions, such as the universality and inevitability of globalization, we emphasize the role of leadership in creating global enforcement mechanisms. Though all imperial powers aspire to create a world order, imperial Britain was really the first to create a global order when she took control of the seas from Spain in July 1588 and which was more or less enforced until1945 when the United States replaced her as the dominant power on the periphery of the central Eurasian land mass (Sir Halford Mackinder’s ‘heartland’). America not only filled the war’s power vacuum, but initiated a novel policy of granting foreign aid to promote development and self-government in the non-communist world.

The historical relationship between globalization and empire is one of cause and effect. We contend that empire is the cause and globalization the effect. The invisible hand of the market has always needed the strong arm of empire to protect and guide international flows of people, information and capital. In The Inadvertent Empire William E. Odom, retired general and ex-director of the National Security Agency, notes that globalization needs order to exist: “Without the U.S. empire there would be wars and anarchy, and therefore, no globalization. The economic activity known as globalization is an effect, not a cause”(53). Most supporters of liberal globalization have simply overlooked the historical fact that globalization has been promoted by Western imperialism: “What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest”(184). Nevertheless, India’s Deepak Lal praises empire, which has severed as a governance mechanism for disparate peoples who otherwise would have been trapped in the conflicts and inefficiencies of anarchy. The rise of India has undoubtedly benefited from Western imperialism and capitalism. Lal suggests that the spreading of Western moral values instead of material values constitutes a real danger for Washington.

Several high ranking US generals have suggested that Afghanistan and Iraqi society cannot be transformed by military means alone. Yet Niall Ferguson in Vanity Fair remarked that the problem in Iraq “is a simple one of numbers, or a chronic manpower deficit, which means it cannot put enough boots on the ground to maintain law and order in conquered territory. This is not because it lacks young men.” Rather, because “it chooses, for a variety of reasons, to employ only a tiny proportion of its population (half of 1 percent) its armed forces, and to deploy only a fraction of these in overseas conflict zones.” America’s downsized military “has left it with too few combat soldiers to make a success of imperial policing—a labor-intensive task that renders redundant much of its high–tech hardware.” Yet the real problem has less to do with demographics than with the general will of the body politic and its national character.

Deployment levels are so low because America’s depoliticized population, like most other developed industrial nations, is primarily based on capital accumulation—the drive for wealth acquisition, consumption and entertainment. David Riesman in the 1950s  had already pointed out how American young men were being trained for the frontiers of consumption rather than production and warfare, and how American voters were spectator-consumers of politics. Public opinion in developed societies has dramatically turned against war. Unless there is a dramatic threat, people are not willing to sacrifice their life for vague justifications based either on geopolitical calculations or idealism. If leaders want to engage in war, they have to manage public perception and wage “instant wars,” before a Vietnam War syndrome kicks in. Thus, any politician who introduces conscription, today, commits political suicide. In short, not enough Americans are willing to go off to the Middle East in the numbers required to provide security and stability, let alone reconstruction and development.

Perhaps, if Ferguson had read Zbigniew Brzenzinski’s The Grand Chessboard, which in 1997 completely predicted the challenges of controlling Eurasia, he would not have been so surprised to realize that: “American hegemony involves the exercise of decisive influence but, unlike the empires of the past, not of direct control. The very scale of Eurasia, as well as the power of some of its states, limits the depth of American influence and the scope of control over the course of events. That megacontinent is just too large, too populous, culturally too varied, and composed of too many historically ambitious and politically energetic states to be compliant toward even the most economically successful and politically preeminent global power.” Brzenzinski’s analysis of American society is very revealing: “America is too democratic at home to be autocratic abroad. This limits the use of America’s power, especially its capacity for military intimidation. Never before has a populist democracy attained international supremacy. But the pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public’s sense of domestic well-being…. Democracy is inimical to imperial mobilization”(35-36). Fiscal need and geographical comparative advantage limited Britain’s involvement in Europe to diplomacy and playing the Great Game of forestalling a single dominant state. Britain’s hegemonic relationship to overseas underdeveloped and developing countries in the 19th century rested on its naval and financial power, but British hegemony certainly wasn’t capable of controlling the center of the global balance of power, or what A.J.P. Taylor called “the struggle for the mastery in Europe.” The United States should learn from Britain’s imperial past, and forget trying to either master or transform Eurasia—a delusional project for the 21st century.


[1] When Old Technologies Were New, 3.