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The Structure of Empires

Empires, as last week’s post noted, have been around for a long time. The evidence of history suggests that they show up fairly promptly once agriculture becomes stable and sophisticated enough to support urban centers, and go away only when urban life also breaks down. Anyone interested in tracking the rise and fall of empires thus has anything up to five thousand years of fairly detailed information from the Old World, and well over three thousand years from the New—plenty of data, one would think, for a coherent picture to emerge.

Unfortunately one major difficulty stands in the way of such a picture, and it’s one that was mentioned last week: empires attract doubletalk the way a dead rat attracts flies. Some of the doubletalk comes from rival power centers, outside the empire du jour or within it, that hope to excuse their own ambitions by painting that empire in the least complimentary colors that can be found, but an even larger amount gets produced by empires themselves—or, more exactly, by the tame intellectuals that empires produce and employ in numbers as large as the imperial economy can support. Between the doubletalk meant to make any given empire seem much worse than its rivals, and the doubletalk meant to make the same empire seem much better than its rivals, understanding is an early casualty.

Last week’s post gave a few examples of the first class of doubletalk. I could cite any number of examples of the second, but one that’s particularly relevant to the theme of this series of posts is that shibboleth of contemporary economics, free trade. That term’s become so thickly encrusted with handwaving and deliberate disinformation that it probably needs to be defined here; “a system of international exchange that prohibits governments from taxing or prohibiting the movement of goods, services, or money across borders” is as good a definition as any.

Pick up an introductory textbook of economics, though, and your chances of finding an objective assessment of a system of this kind are very low indeed. Instead, what you’ll find between the covers is a ringing endorsement of free trade, usually in the most propagandistic sort of language. Most likely it will rehash the arguments originally made by British economist David Ricardo, in the early 19th century, to prove that free trade inevitably encourages every nation to develop whatever industries are best suited to its circumstances, and so produces more prosperity for everybody. Those arguments will usually be spiced up with whatever more recent additions appeal to the theoretical tastes of the textbook’s author or authors, and will plop the whole discussion into a historical narrative that insists that once upon a time, there were silly people who didn’t like free trade, but now we all know better.

What inevitably gets omitted from the textbook is any discussion, based in actual historical examples, of the way that free trade works out in practice That would be awkward, because in the real world, throughout history, free trade pretty consistently hasn’t done what Ricardo’s rhetoric and today’s economics textbooks claim it will do. Instead, it amplifies the advantages of wealthy nations and the disadvantages of poorer ones, concentrating capital and income in the hands of those who already have plenty of both while squeezing out potential rivals and forcing down wages across the board. This is why every nation in history that’s ever developed a significant industrial sector to its economy has done so by rejecting the ideology of free trade, and building its industries behind a protective wall of tariffs, trade barriers, and capital controls, while those nations that have listened to the advice of the tame economists of the British and American empires have one and all remained mired in poverty and dependence as long as they did so.

There’s a rich irony here, because not much more than a century ago, a healthy skepticism toward the claims of free trade ideology used to be standard in the United States. At that time, Britain filled the role in the world system that the United States fills today, complete with the global empire, the gargantuan military with annual budget to match, and the endless drumbeat of brushfire wars across what would one day be called the Third World, and British economists were accordingly the world’s loudest proponents of free trade, while the United States filled the role of rising industrial power that China fills today, complete with sky-high trade barriers that protected its growing industries, not to mention a distinctly cavalier attitude toward intellectual property laws.

One result of that latter detail is that pirate editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica were produced and sold by a number of American firms all through the 19th century. Most of these editions differed from their British originals in an interesting way, though. The entry for “Free Trade” in the original editions repeated standard British free-trade economic theory, repeating Ricardo’s arguments and dismissing criticisms of free trade out of hand; the American editors by and large took the trouble to replace these with entries critiquing free trade ideology in much the same terms I’ve used in this post. The replacement of pro- with anti-free trade arguments in these pirate editions, interestingly enough, attracted far more denunciation in the British press than the piracy itself got, which shows that the real issues were tolerably well understood at the time.

When it comes to free trade and its alternatives, that level of understanding is nowhere near so common these days, at least in the United States—I’ve long suspected that businessmen and officials in Beijing have a very precise understanding of what free trade actually means, though it would hardly be to their advantage just now to talk about that with any degree of candor. On this side of the Pacific, by contrast, even those who speak most enthusiastically about relocalization and the end of corporate globalism apparently haven’t noticed how effectively tariffs, trade barriers, and capital controls foster domestic industries and rebuild national economies—or perhaps it’s just that too many of them aren’t willing to consider paying the kind of prices for their iPods and Xboxes that would follow the enactment of a reasonable tariff, much less the prices that would be required if we had the kind of trade barriers that built the American economy and could build it again, and American workers were paid American wages to make them.

Free trade is simply one of the mechanisms of empire in the age of industrialism, one part of the wealth pump that concentrated the wealth of the globe in Britain during the years of its imperial dominion and does the same thing for the benefit of the United States today. Choose any other mechanism of empire, from the web of military treaties that lock allies and subject nations into a condition of dependence on the imperial center, through the immense benefits that accrue to whatever nation issues the currency in which international trade is carried out, to the way that the charitable organizations of the imperial center—missionary churches in Victoria’s time, for example, or humanitarian NGOs in ours—further the agenda of empire with such weary predictability: in every case, you’ll find a haze of doubletalk surrounding a straightforward exercise of imperial domination. It requires a keen eye to look past the rhetoric and pay attention to the direction the benefits flow.

Follow the flow of wealth and you understand empire. That’s true in a general and a more specific sense, and both of these have their uses. In the general sense, paying attention to shifts in wealth between the imperial core and the nations subject to it is an essential antidote to the popular sort of nonsense—popular among the tame intellectuals previously mentioned, at least, and their audiences in the imperial core—that imagines empire as a sort of social welfare program for conquered nations. Whether it’s some old pukka sahib talking about how the British Empire brought railroads and good government to India, or his neoconservative equivalent talking about how the United States ought to export the blessings of democracy and the free market to the Middle East, it’s codswallop, and the easiest way to see that it’s codswallop is to notice that the price paid for whatever exports are under discussion normally amounts to the systematic impoverishment of the subject nation.

In the specific sense, flows of wealth can be used to trace out the structure of empire, which is a more complex matter than the basic outline discussed so far might make it seem. It’s entirely possible that a long time ago, when empires were new, there might have been one or two that consisted, on the level of nations, of a single imperial nation and a circle of subject nations; and on the level of populations, of a single ruling class and an undifferentiated mass of oppressed subjects. If empires this simple did exist, though, it was a very long time ago.

Nowadays an imperial system normally involves at least four distinct categories of nations, and an even more complex set of population divisions. On the level of nations, the imperial nation is in a category of its own; around it is an inner circle of allied nations, who support the empire in exchange for a share of the spoils; the third category consists of subject nations, the cash cows that the empire milks, and in due time will milk dry; finally, around the periphery, are enemy nations that oppose the empire in peace and war. In theory, at least, this last category shouldn’t be necessary, but it may not be accidental that when an empire loses one enemy, the usual response is to go shopping for another.

On the level of populations, the sort of crudely manipulative rhetoric that divides an elite 1% from an oppressed 99%, which was made popular last year by the Occupy movement, is a formidable barrier to understanding. An empire that tried to manage its affairs along those lines would fall in weeks. From ancient Rome to contemporary Washington DC, “divide and conquer” has always been the basic strategy of empire, and the classic way to do that in modern times is to hand out shares of wealth and privilege unequally to different sectors of the population. The British empire turned this into an art form, using arbitrary privileges and exclusions of various kinds to keep ethnic groups in each subject nation so irritated at one another that they never got around to uniting against the British. From the simmering rivalry between India and Pakistan, through the troubles of Northern Ireland, to the bitter mutual hatreds of Israelis and Arabs in what used to be British Palestine, the ethnic hatreds whipped up deliberately for the sake of Britain’s imperial advantage remain a live issue today.

These same divisions can be traced out within the imperial nation as well, and readily make hash out of any attempt to sort things out along the simplistic “us and them” lines favored by political activists. In contemporary America, for example, different sectors of the population are subject to the same sort of privileges and exclusions that defined so much of life in British India; if you’re an American citizen, the average annual income of your parents is a more exact predictor of your own income than any other factor, but your gender, your skin color, the location on the urban-rural spectrum of the neighborhood where you grew up, and a great many other arbitrary factors have far more to say about your prospects in life than America’s egalitarian ideology would suggest. These complexities are hardly accidental.

Still, there’s more going on here than simple manipulation from the top down. Within an imperial system, different nations and population groups are always competing against one another for a larger share of the wealth and privilege that empires make available. That happens on the scale of nations, for example, when a subject nation in a strategic location becomes an ally, or when an ally—as America did in 1945—supplants the former imperial center and takes the empire for its own. That also happens on the scale of populations, and on smaller scales still.

The ruling class of any nation, for example, consists of a loose alliance of power centers, held together by the pressures of mutual advantage, but constantly pursuing their own divergent interests and eagerly trying to claim a larger share of power and wealth at the expense of the other power centers. There are always families, factions, and social groups rising up into the ruling class at any given point, and others falling out of it; while outside the ruling class is an even more complex constellation of groups who support power centers within the ruling class, who expect to receive wealth and privileges in return for their support, and who rise and fall in their own intricate rhythm. Proceed step by step down the pyramid, and you’ll find the same complexities in place all the way down to the bottom, where a flurry of ethnic, cultural, and social groups compete with one another over whose oppression ought to get the most attention from middle class liberals.

On the level of nations or that of populations, in other words, it’s neither possible nor useful to divide the structure of empire into the simplistic categories of oppressor and oppressed, ruler and ruled. Many nations in any imperial system fall between the summit and the base of the pyramid, and are permitted to pump wealth out of nations lower down on the condition that they forward a certain fraction of the take further up. The vast majority of people in the imperial nation and its allies, and a certain fraction of those even in the most heavily exploited subject nations, receive at least a modest share of wealth and privilege in exchange for their cooperation in maintaining the imperial system, compete constantly for a bigger share, and generally limit their criticisms of the imperial system to those aspects of it that profit somebody else. That’s why empires have proven to be so enduring a human social form; the basic toolkit of empire includes an ample assortment of ways to buy the loyalty, or at least the passive acquiescence, of all those potential power centers that might otherwise try to destabilize the imperial system and bring the empire crashing down.

Yet empires do come crashing down, of course. The fact that the form has proven to be enduring has not given a comparable endurance to any individual empire. Britons during Victoria’s reign liked to boast that the sun never set on the British empire—though that may have been, as the Irish liked to suggest, because God Himself wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark—but the sun did set on that empire in due time, and once the sunset started, it proceeded with remarkable speed. Children who were just old enough to remember the celebration of Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, when the empire was not far from its zenith, had not yet reached retirement age when the last tattered scraps of that empire went whistling down the wind.

The collapse of the British empire is a fascinating story in its own right, but it’s also an object lesson of great importance just now. That collapse opened a window of opportunity through which several nations tried to climb, and the one that succeeded is today’s dominant imperial power, the United States of America. Understand Britain’s imperial sunset, and the broader patterns by which empires overshoot their economic basis and go under, and you understand one of the most important and least anticipated facts of the decades ahead of us—the parallel collapse of the American empire, and the struggle to replace it. We’ll explore that in outline next week.


End of the World of the Week #10

England has a long history of tolerating eccentrics, and its apocalyptic prophets have accordingly been among the more colorful examples of the species. From the Middle Ages through to the present, some truly exotic claims have been made by English prophets, but I know of only one who announced that she would bring about the Second Coming by the simple and elegant means of duplicating the role of the Virgin Mary and giving birth to Christ.

This was Joanna Southcott. Born in 1750 in the West Country village of Gittisham, Southcott led an unremarkable life until middle age, when she began to develop a reputation as what people at that time politely called a “wise woman” and earlier generations had called by the more robust label of “witch.” Her skills as a folk healer and fortuneteller attracted a modest following, which grew considerably in 1792 when she announced that she was the woman clothed with the Sun described in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. Moving to London, she began issuing prophecies in bad verse—one of them stating that the Second Coming would occur in the year 2004—and providing followers with seals that declared them members of the fortunate 144,000 who would enter into the New Jerusalem.

One of the job requirements of the woman clothed with the Sun, though, was to give birth to a man child who would rule the nations with a rod of iron. In 1814, at the age of 64, Southcott announced that she was pregnant and would give birth to the Messiah after the normal interval. Nine months later, with an exquisite sense of timing, she died; her followers, convinced she was in a trance, kept her body warm with hot water bottles until the smell of decay became intolerable.

—story from Apocalypse Not

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