The Civilized-Imperial Pattern
If history is portrayed as a play of recurring forces, tendencies and trends, then it is axiomatic that any power will assert itself as soon as an opportunity arises. Empires are a natural response to chaos or innovative revolutions, because in each case significant social change is the end result. In the struggle to cope with radical change, the first strategic response for every civilization is centralization, which is necessary for survival not to mention expansion. Lewis Mumford in his classic two volume The Myth of the Machine has shown how each the agricultural, urban, intellectual, military, financial, democratic, capitalist, managerial, communication, status, as well as the sexual and drug revolutions have more or less been subjugated to the pentagon of power. In other words, revolution releases energy, which needs to be economized if public order is to be maintained. Our radical hypothesis is that the dialectic between empire and revolution (in the largest sense) is the key to world history, and that empire is the constant, its everpresent cyclical invariant throughout. Some power (regardless of form) will always rise as others fall, for ‘power abhors a vacuum’ is a simple but profound truism. In contemporary international political thought, this notion is based on the balance of powers and exists as a descriptive law.
The ageless imperial pattern, exemplified by the Imperium Romanum, has come into being in many important instances and has been repeated on larger geographical and chronological scales. Nevertheless, the pattern had a beginning in the ancient Near East, when nomadic warriors confronted settled priestly communities, which had organized the control of water and grain production. Indeed, the political and social institutions that we associate with civilized society had their roots in the agricultural and urban revolution of the fourth millennium BCE. Indeed, the word civilization is derived from the great geotechnic collective feats of building cities, canals, irrigation systems, temples and massive walls, which were all the product of some system of dominance. The earliest form was the psychological coercive system of the priests, who monopolized the supernatural forces that were thought to govern both the affairs of men as well as the fertility of crops and livestock. The priests prompted and directed the industry of primitive man’s earliest attempts to fashion brute material to new ends, namely an advanced irrigation society, which required writing and advanced knowledge in mathematics, astronomy, and hydraulics. Aside from leading a peasantry in worship, priests positively served as managers, planners, and coordinators of a massed communal concern that permitted social differentiation and the first economic surplus, without which civilization could never had come into existence. The task of controlling water for irrigation purposes certainly helped rulers in consolidating political power. Irrigation and state power grew up together, both reinforced each other.
Since priestly control was ultimately based on psychological subjugation—soft power, their system of control was gradually replaced or yoked to a physically harder system in the form of a secular king and his army. Because the barbarian invaders principal economic activity had been the hunting and herding of animals, their spiritual attitude towards industrial labor differed from temple communities; mere drudgery was looked down upon, it did not reflect the legacy of their ancestors primal predatory attitude—only exploitative kinds of employment were considered manly, noble and worthy. Civilization began in the third millennium BCE, whence warlike organized communities from the margins of the agricultural world conquered peaceful settled villagers and superimposed the institution of kingship upon the older temple system of administration, thereby integrating a new system of politics, religion, morals and manners that legitimized itself through the cult of Divine Kingship and the Solar God.
The logic of empires alternated between periods of imperial consolidation, when one power from a plurality of warring states achieved hegemony over the others by establishing sovereign control over a territory that was formerly divided, and periods of internal fragmentation and barbarian irruption, which was caused by the inherent instability of a system that is based on taxing conquered and resentful subjects and from nomadic invasions of simpler but more dynamic warriors. As a result from recurrent conquests of agricultural populations by barbarians from across the frontiers, polyethnicity was maintained by overlay at the top, “so also the influx of enslaved outsiders at the bottom of society added another strand to mix of peoples who inhabited Eurasian cities.”
McNeill in Plagues and Peoples suspects that the common folk, who worked passively in irrigation ditches and rice paddies for despotic governments, became too listless to revolt, from not only psychological reasons but because of the degenerating effects of diseases that thrived in shallow waterways. Aside from ecological, economic and demographic disasters, McNeill in the Pursuit of Power argues that the rise and fall of ancient empires and dynasties were caused by “systematic changes in the military basis of political power.” [McNeill(1982),9] The introduction of bronze weapons and armor originating around 3500 BCE, began concurrently with civilization. The next radical change occurred with the invention of war chariots soon after 1800 BCE, which created feudal states based on warrior elites. The social balances began to swing towards a more egalitarian direction with the creation of iron weapons around 1400 BCE, which began to spread after 1200 BCE. Because the metal was cheap and easy to make, ordinary farmers and herdsmen victoriously wielded iron weapons against aristocratic powers whose monopoly of chariotry had set them apart. However, local egalitarian violence was no match for the organized violence of Assyrian rulers and professional troops, when they reintroduced the command traditions of the old empires of the river valleys as well as military innovations—like the horseback riding soldier. Thus, whenever improved changes in weapons-systems and administration firmly took root in ancient society, social revolutions and new struggles followed. According to McNeill, “internecine struggles among the Sumerian cities found surcease only through imperial consolidation of the entire Mesopotamian flood plain, so in the second and first millennia BCE, conflicts among rival territorial states of the Middle East culminated in the erection of a much vaster imperial structure, the Persian empire, which united all the lands of the civilized Orient under a single administration.” [McNeill(1963),93]
Ancient Persia geographically covered not only today’s Iran, but Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Central Asia, and the Indus Valley. When it opened up these diverse regions to cultural and economic trade, Persia came to possess humanity’s oldest culture as well as the Earth’s richest mineral regions. This culture from the beginning was grounded on the metal wealth of the land. Its creation myth legibly reveals the connection between metals and the emergence of life; for the first man and woman were said to have been made from the seven metals, which reflects the production and processes of metalworking. McNeil notes how the Achaemenid Empire (539-332 BCE) improved the system of bureaucratic administration of the ancient river valley civilizations, by replacing the limited Mesoptamian system based on unrestrained pillage and plunder of local food producers with a more efficient and predictable form of imperial administration based on regular taxes and rents. Bureaucratic rationality was in the interest of both the rulers and ruled; for the latter benefited by sharing financial burdens more equally, and the former secured greater logistical support when moving troops. The development of imperial tax and rent systems soon “arose in China, in India, and also in the Mediterranean world with the rise of Rome.” [McNeill(1982),4] The Persian universal empire provided a single political framework for Middle Eastern cosmopolitan society, which was the largest expression of the civilized-imperial pattern of its time until Greco-Roman power superceded
perceived how maritime commerce multiplies laws.
Alexander’s imperial conquest of Asia and Stoic
philosophers prepared the way for a world empire
which required an ideology that employs a law of
nations over local customs. Romans imposed their
rules on primitive unreflective communities as well
as older prouder nations. Roman jurists created the
ius gentium to rule the Empire—a system that did not
give Roman citizenship or the rights of the ius
civile. The ‘Law of the Nations’ was a patriotic
fiction, a rationalization of power relations
between Roman sovereignty and diverse conquered
nations. The Stoics identified the ‘Law of Nations’
with the ‘Law of Nature’ and defined the latter as a
moral code implanted in mankind by ‘natural reason,’
which, by the way, provided the intellectual
instrument for an authoritarian system of rule.
Roman law would provide the legal and ideological
framework for the Holy Roman Empire and modern
states of continental Europe.
The Modern World-System
When European expansion began in the late fifteenth century, it upset the land-centered Eurasian cultural balance which had existed since 500 BCE. “The world was not organized into any single international system or society, but comprised several regional international systems, each with its own distinctive rules and institutions, reflecting a dominant regional culture.” [Bull&Watson(1984),1] Historians of comparative civilization argue over the actual number of regional international systems, the division of cultural complexity as well as the number of stages in a cycle. Though each civilization was distinct, they shared certain complex features like a division of labor, religion, laws, commerce, bureaucracies, written communication, and financial records. Indeed, their main commonality was centralization of authority, usually represented in the suzerain Supreme Ruler or Emperor.
By the time European expansion began, the outlines of a few civilizations are discernable. For example, Hedley Bull and Adam Watson argue in The Expansion of International Society that the most important regional political systems aside from medieval Latin Christendom, which was an autonomous expression of one civilization among many, “were the Arab-Islamic system, which stretched from Spain to Persia; the system of the Indian subcontinent and its extensions eastward, founded upon a traditional Hindu culture but with predominant power in the hands of Muslim rulers; the Mongol-Tartar dominion of the Eurasian steppes, which had also become Muslim; and the Chinese system, long under Mongol domination.” [Bull&Watson(1984),2] Outside of them lay the less developed cultures what has been called the ‘Great Frontier’ of the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Australasia. “Contact among these regional systems were much more limited than contacts within them. There was trade, especially by sea across the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. There was some diplomatic communication and military conflict. But not even the three Islamic systems may be said to have formed among themselves a single international system or international society, in the sense in which we use these terms.”[Bull&Watson(1984),2]
Each civilization was hegemonial or imperial at the center, and towards the periphery of the extended empire lay local semi-autonomous states, who paid tribute to the overlord. Beyond the periphery there lay kingdoms or principalities that were recognized by the emperor, but not as his equal. Imperial sovereignty was not as sharply localized in definite territorial units like Greek city-states nor modern European states, but was rather loosely dispersed between tribal, religious and federal associations consolidating into a central administration. Since empires were usually at the center of each international system, it is difficult to differentiate empire from civilization.
Medieval Latin Christendom, which gave birth to the modern European states-system, was modeled on the Roman suzerain system. However, its authority was divided between the pope of the Catholic church and Emperor i.e., the most powerful prince within the Holy Roman Empire. “West-European political history became aberrant from civilized norms only after about A.D. 1000, when urban life and commercial activity started to flourish anew, but imperial consolidation failed to ensue.” [McNeill(1994),7] This happened because of the unsuccessful struggle of the two rival bureaucracies (one papal, one imperial) to assert universal jurisdiction over Latin Christendom, which led, instead, to the rise of territorial sovereign rulers around 1300. Because the complexity of the new art of war reinforced localism and the commercial spirit, it was not long until the “idea and practice of state sovereignty within the context of other sovereign states arose in Western Europe, beginning about 1450 and attaining full theoretical and institutional expression by 1650.” [McNeill(1994),3] The pattern of pluralistic sovereign states and market regulated behavior comes into focus when the Habsburg emperor Charles V (1519-55) failed to create a universal monarchy and becomes definite by the 17th century after the Thirty Years War. Since no central power could impose its command economy upon every corner of Europe and therefore harness all resources in the war effort to consolidate imperial power, other political, economic and cultural centers of power avoided conquest, which had the effect of sharpening international competition.
Technology, for most of history, especially weapon-systems, has been the driving force for change. However, when the modern system emerged about five hundred years ago, market forces began to stimulate capital intensive technologies and industries like mining, weapons manufacturing and ship building. The German mining industry in the Middle Ages partially laid the foundation for the industrial revolution with its many innovative mechanical and social spin-offs: mine machinery, forced ventilation, waterpower operated fans, pumps and mills for crushing ores, artificial lighting, railway, and wage labor instead of slavery and Knapschaften—unions as official institutions. “The increased use of armor in warfare, with the later invention of cannon and muskets, made fresh demands on the metallurgical industries: mine, furnace, foundry, and forge.” [Mumford(1970),146] Mining was not only stimulated by demand, it involved economic risks, which could bring big returns; “and this, too served as a pattern for both capitalist enterprise itself and later mechanization.” [Mumford(1970),147] Famous trading and banking families of the German Emperors, such as the “Fugger” and the “Welser,” acquired much of their wealth as entrepreneurs of mining plants and traders of mining products.
Commercialized warfare created a feedback loop between capital, technology and power that simultaneously quickened the tempo of change and scale of geographical expansion. Of course, economic factors had influenced social change in the ancient world, but they did not really begin to make an impact on world history until the thirteenth century, when market forces originating in the towns of Italy and the Low Countries first escaped from the bureaucratic command structures of Latin Christendom. Market forces like gravity were capable of acting at a distance, thus pulling the world together. Fernand Braudel in Civilization and Capitalism argued, “A world economy always has an urban center of gravity, a city, as the logistic heart of its activity. News, merchandise, capital, credit, people, instructions, correspondence all flow into and out of the city.” [Braudel(1984),27] Market behavior originated where transport and communication were easy. Commercial centers arose on rivers and seas, and trade routes eventually tied the North and Baltic to the Mediterranean seas into a single economy. Capital accumulation occurred in these self governing cities, where no single political command structure was capable of enforcing heavy taxation, which territorial rulers needed for the heavy costs of waging war. “By the sixteenth century,” McNeill paradoxically writes, “even the mightiest European command structures became dependent on an international money and credit market for organizing military and other undertakings.” Thus, writers since Marx have seen the simultaneous rise of capitalism in Western Europe and the emergence of a new ruling class, namely, the bourgeoisie.
As a general a rule, wherever empires or super-states existed, economic growth was hindered. Centralized empires were archaic formulations, representing the triumph of the political over the market economy. The intense military and commercial rivalry between territorial states, simultaneously made political consolidation of modern Europe into a single imperial unity impossible, and Immanuel Wallerstein’s modern world-system a reality.
Since no European state was able to dominate the regional system, a competitive dynamic—based on a balance-of-powers—was created, which drove the European system abroad. Sea power, which had remained comparatively unimportant, became supreme when it broke the old cultural balance between the independent political communities of Eurasia. European sea power led to the first geopolitical counter attack against Halford Mackinder’s ‘world-island.’ This eventually led to the first truly cosmopolitan global society and integrated political economy. “The evolution of the European system of interstate relations and the expansion of Europe across the globe were simultaneous processes, which influenced and affected each other.” [Bull&Watson(1984),6] That is, international expansion created national cohesion, which reinforced nationality at home; empire-building helped societies form their national identity. Internationalism and nationalism are two sides of the same coin.
This in turn drove the great powers to expand (for security or economic interests) until they each reached their respective point of ‘imperial overstretch.’ When a state’s ambitions abroad undermined its own resources, or when financial contradictions between center and periphery became too great, then great powers lost their respective economic position and territorial possessions, or both. The historical record suggests that ‘overstretch’ occurs, “if a particular nation is allocating over the long term more than 10 percent (and in some cases—when it is structurally weak—more than 5 percent) of GNP to armaments.” [Kennedy(1987),p.609, note 18] Alas, once these historical forces are set in motion, the tendency towards imperial decline ensues as well as increasing power rivalry. From the point of view of empire building, when domestic military costs of protecting frontiers and trade routes produces extravagant fiscal and balance-of-trade deficits, then domestic weakness is implicitly connected to foreign policy. Though this parsimonious cycle—based on the organic metaphor of growth and decay—simplifies variance between specific historical cases (which is open to criticism), it nonetheless reveals the general pattern of the advance and decay of great powers that analytical approaches to modern political history on both sides of the ideological spectrum have analyzed since the 1970s. Though their analysis of units differ, theorists from both the Modern World System and the Theory of Hegemonic Stability schools explained the dynamics of history until the end of the cold war in terms of this enduring leitmotif. For as long as international anarchy exists in a competitive multi-powered system, a balance-of-power will persist regardless of shifts in the distribution of power and transformations in technology. Accordingly, the United States current strategy of preponderance has changed certain aspects of the international system, but so long as a condition of anarchy survives--every state must play the game of power politics.
If the present reveals any historical novelty, then according to Michael Ignatieff, “the 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” James Kurth argues that “the first decade of the 21st century, like the first decade of the 20th, is an age of empire.” [Kurth(2003)] Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, keen commentators have noticed the end of ‘the age of globalization’ and the rise of American militarism and imperialism. Historically, the United States has shown a priority of geo-economic over geopolitical concerns. “This is an astonishing reversal of previous prophecies, which assumed that international peace would be assured by the spread of liberal democracies in a postcolonial world of emerging nation states. According to this view, the age of empires is not dead; it has just been resting between engagements.” [Hopkins(2002),ix] Indeed, in the West it only now seems possible to see the hidden history of empire, as the United States shifts from informal influence to formal rule.
After the closure of the frontier a little over a hundred years ago, the United States showed the world its first international ambitions. Around fifty years ago the US inherited the first truly international system that Western Europe created. However, American expansion is distinct from the European colonial pattern in that it has been market centered, which it formulated a hundred years ago as the ‘open door’ policy. From the dawn of decolonization to post-imperial transnational capitalism, America’s rhetoric of liberal democracy and globalization has acted as the Trojan horse for the occultation of empire. In many parts of former empire, globalization appears as neocolonialism; for the mechanisms of colonial governance have simply been replaced by corporate ones, and partnerships between capitalists centers and the periphery have created current versions of colonial policy by forming dependent passive local collaborators. Decolonization and the rise of the multinational corporation, based on a cosmopolitan ideology of politically sovereign nation states, has invisibly prolonged the logic of empire.
The notion of an American empire is a contentious topic today and seems to depend on power and word usage. Stephen Howe, a leading British scholar on empire, in Open Democracy has pointed out that the debate actually revolves around three issues: history, language, and ideology; likewise, Michael Cox, political scientist at the London School of Economics, argues that there are three serious objections to the idea; issues concerning territorial control, America’s promotion of national self-determination, and America’s lack of influence or inability to impose its own system of democracy and free markets on the rest of the world. The answers to these sorts of issues and objections help form the axioms of imperialism for the 21st century and outline the nature of the American empire. We deal with the issues of history, language and ideology through the disciplines of geopolitics, rhetoric and the ‘sociology of knowledge.’