Areas of Empire Study

Since empire-building is a complex historical phenomena involving sovereignty, our various areas of study are thematically separated but conceptually interconnected around core political disciplines, such as geo-politics, political economy and political sociology, as well as communication and religious studies among others. Europe’s historic control of vast regions of the planet is rooted in both science and technics—what Sir Francis Bacon called the ‘empire of man over things.’ Since about 1500 the ‘advancement of learning’ had been driving what Bishop Berkeley called the ‘Westward course of empire.’

In terms of determining underlying causes of imperial expansion, we believe that technological means rather than motivations are more significant. For example, Europeans had both the will and means to venture abroad and conquer ‘The Great Frontier.’ The Aztecs had an appetite for conquest and expansion, but lacked both the means and know-how to reach Europe. Technological superiority rests on knowledge and social institutions. In most past societies, knowledge was in the possession of special classes, yet the Protestant Reformation broke that monopoly in Europe, which greatly stimulated the sciences. Metropolitan centers of learning such as the Royal Society could make fresh generalizations from experience and observations of natural historians, which flourished as reports from explorers on plants, animals and savage practices were collected and cataloged. The discovery of  new worlds was a by-product of conquering and occupying new continents. Exploration pushed back the frontiers of knowledge, making it both pragmatic and dynamic. The democratic frontier ethos as well as technological and military conquest of the globe has created a five hundred year Economic Boom.

Europe’s seaborne and colonial empires were originally driven by geo-economic over geopolitical concerns. In contrast to the mercantile empires of Western Europe, neither the Persian, Roman nor Carolingian empires added much wealth to the world—it was simply transferred to other hands. A growing volume of world trade stimulated industry. Before 1776, Americans, like Benjamin Franklin, were trying to persuade British policy makers to question their notions of wealth, growth and expansion. Economic policy was informed by the theory of mercantilism which assumed that the wealth of the world is like a pie, thus a bigger slice for one European nation meant that all others had to be smaller. The contest for empire was too high to be generous. Britain did not make Adam Smith’s economic policy of free trade official until after her victory over France was complete. Britain’s command of the seas gave her the opportunity to practice ‘free trade imperialism.’ During the 19th century, bourgeois capitalists drew the economic periphery into a single interdependent world system. However, integrating the ancient agrarian land empires as well as newly colonized regions into Europe’s industrial economy at a profit required informal collaborative mechanisms. The West ruled large areas of the world cheaply and with few troops. When the Bismarck’s hegemonic system collapsed in 1890, a new balance-of-powers arose on the Continent, which quickened the pace of market competition. Growing economic pressure led to a global scramble for territory through conquest. Economic control was no longer thought to be a substitute for political control.

Norbert Wiener defines cybernetics as the science of communication and control in machines and living organism. According to Amitai Etizioni, all premodern and modern empires have been premature in the sense that “they did not have the cybernetic capacity and power, the communication and transportation means, and the consensus-formation structures necessary to keep a large or extending polity integrated and guided”(580). America’s postmodern empire is the world’s first cybernetic empire. We argue that cybernetic control is central to empire. Pre-modern, modern, and post-modern empires share a family resemblance (conceptual overlap) in one key area—control. Formal or informal rule is an irrelevant criteria for a definition of empire to hinge on, because what really matter is the control of outcomes.

On the frontier, where jurisdiction was nonexistent, natural law ruled supreme. In order to exploit the natural resources of remote areas, modern transportation technologies were built to move raw materials from the periphery to the metropolis. But infrastructure required financial investment from advanced nations that had already accumulated capital from dense trading networks. Because wealth inevitably relates to power, we include political economy as a distinct but integrated area of study. The economic law of supply and demand and the monetization of land, labor and capital are essential philosophic classifications for understanding modern imperialism. Once everything was for sale, economic maximization became ubiquitous—established social patterns were revolutionized—budding capitalists challenged landlords. Land in the new world lost much of its traditional social significance that it had in overcrowded Europe. Moreover, scarce labor, plentiful land and rapid mobilization made it difficult to preserve social distance. Movement westward made it difficult for a fledgling government to control unauthorized persons from operating a press and publishing knowledge of current events, which would have been considered subversive or explosive in the Old World.

We employ the “sociology of knowledge” to examine how knowledge and public opinion are constructed in relation to empire. In the past, knowledge was constructed by a few privileged minds into unified and abstract dogmatic systems. Knowledge since the Enlightenment, on the other hand, has become more diffuse and elusive. The proliferation of mass media has altered public relations and empowered publicists and opinion makers. The ‘manipulative society’ has arisen to fulfill the need of controlling communication. For example, in the 1930’s the struggle for the airwaves and airways of the world began simultaneously. Indeed, Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt all understood the importance of both. While the European governing classes monopolized the press to cement the social order, freedom of the press in America has depended upon advertising revenues for its existence. In any case, media depends either on government or advertising for its existence, so the sociology of the media examines both principles.

Since both power and capital accumulation have been connected with the numinous, we turn to religious studies that deals with rituals and institutions at the heart of community- and empire-building. A society’s institutions that relate to its laws and religion are intimately related to its experience of war and peace. The democratic spirit simultaneously creates comradeship, while it levels-down rank and emotional attachments. Empire, on the other hand, supports authority and hierarchy and evokes a mystic dimension that sanctifies service and glory. The events of September 11, 2001 have supported a global trend towards muscular forms of religiosity—in Judaism, Christianity and Islam—despite their doctrinal differences. Fundamentalism is a continuing historical phenomenon, but is becoming increasingly a modern one. For example, the spread of fundamentalist evangelism in America has been growing since the 1960s at the expense of liberal Protestant denominations. Modernism brings about a perceived crisis of identity, creating real irrational fears. Fundamentalists attempt to overcome modernity and alienation by returning to a fictional traditional way of life. We investigate the role of empire within the dynamic relationship between religion and secularization.