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” All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what
have the Romans ever done for us?”

– John Cleese, The Life of Brian

Deos fortioribus adesse “
– Tacitus

Link Preface:

“History of Empire Part I.” by Chirol of Coming Anarchy

” History of Empire Part II” Ibid

“Response to Chirol on 2nd Generation Empires Part I” by Dan of tdaxp

Empire” by The Jewish Blog

Empires!!!” by Dr. Daniel Nexon of The Duck of Minerva

Chirol at Coming Anarchy has set off an a very interesting discussion with his series on 2nd Generation Empires and a full post is required for a critique ( you hit gold as a blogger when you write something and your comment section is not enough for your readers). I’m going to touch on some points here and I ecourage you to click the above links for the thoughtful responses Chirol’s post has already accrued.

1. Empires as a positive phenomenon:

I tend to agree with Chirol and Nexon here. The reflexive attitude floating in the culture is to presume ” imperialism” is a bad thing having been used as a perjorative for most of the previous century but you have to ask – relative to what ? What preceded the empire before it subjugated the ” other”. Often times what preceded empire was less than admirable.

For every straightforwardly avaricious and retrogressive colonial regime like the one in French Indochina you have numerous others stamping out headhunting, the suttee, slavery and other aspects of barbarism while building modernity and connectivity. Like most forms of governance, the historical moral record is mixed for empire but regimes that are not capable of non-zero sum outcomes are not likely to be sustained for any length of time. You also need to compare that record with what would have prevailed in the empire’s absence. A medieval Jew was far better off living under the Caliphate of Cordova or in Muslim Granada than in the petty duchies of backward Germany at the time. Or under Ferdinand and Isabella’s monarchy that came after the Moors.

The Belgians were among the worst of the lot of the European colonizers exceeding in cruelty even the Germans in Southwest Africa – and this is saying a lot. Yet prior to the arrival of the Belgians the Congo basin was dominated by Afro-Arab slavers from Zanzibar and cannibal chiefdoms of the interior that built fortified towns lavishly decorated with human skulls. A culture that is on a moral par with the Aztecs but without the astronomy and fancy architecture frankly deserves to lose.

Empires that disprove the rule by being phenomenal paragons of physical destruction and looting rather than economic order – Tamerlane’s, Attila’s, The Third Reich, the Soviet Union – were all exceptionally short-lived. Ah, but Alexander’s empire too was short-lived ? Yes, but he ushered in the Hellenistic Age and his successors all founded dynastic states.

2. What is ” Empire”? Are there generations of Empire ?

Classical empires on the Roman model built by conquest and annexation define the common understanding of the term. J.A Hobson and Lenin by critiquing modern European capitalist states and their economic relations with their colonial possessions redefined imperialism for the Left to include. eventually, normal transactional market relations as a form of coercive
” imperialism”. A politically self-serving and economically illiterate argument but one with remarkable longevity. For some writers today, an ” empire” is simply a large and powerful polity engaged in policies the author vehemently opposes.

Chirol has defined his 2GE as:

“Simply put, a second generation empire is one that increases its “network coverage” by means other than military force. They include economic, political, legal and cultural forces. The power to increase or decrease network coverage is also not completely one-sided as both partners tend to have the ability to create, adjust or sever ties, though as usual, the stronger states tend to set the rules and have considerable advantages over smaller ones.”

In other words, a 2GE is a dynamic civilizational network system greater than the sum of its parts. A 2GE could have a hegemonic dominant power or a set of powers where some are more equal than others but the ” empire” is the overarching system itself and not a particular state. Dan of tdaxp asked if a state could be 2GE and 1GE simultaneously ? It would seem that logically a 2GE could have a 1GE or several cohabitating within it fairly harmoniously since the 2GE is primarily an economic and soft power associational grouping.

Is there any logical tie between Chirol’s 1GE and 2GE concepts that merit referring to the latter as an ” empire”. The fundamental quality the two entities share in my view is that they are both strong centripetal geopolitical forces – they both attract or pull outside political entities into their system, albeit by different means. Calling the 2GE an ” empire” per se is a bit of a typological romanticization and is, politically speaking, unhelpful assuming that you support the establishment and growth of such entities because the term invites hostile ideological attention and opposition.

But substantively, the networking phenomena described by Chirol as “2GE” exists as a subset of globalization. The transnational characteristics of 2GE groupings like the EU and NAFTA are challenging traditional conceptions of the scope of national sovereignty under international law and shifting decision-making power over economic policy from national leaders to market forces and to international rule-set making institutions. It’s a discernable process and one that is apt to accelerate so long as globalization is allowed to continue progress to deeper and deeper levels of connectivity.

7 Responses to “”

  1. The Lounsbury Says:

    I’m not sure what has gotten to you of late, and I don’t know what bloody history you’ve been reading, but your characterisation of the Congo is daft.

    Afro-Arab (Swahili) slave raiders, most famously Tipu Tib (few were ‘real Arabs’) were just touching on the fringes of the Congo basin when colonial rule came. Whatever their sins – and they were many – an established fact is the population dropped precipitiously under the Belgians.

    As for the more lurid stories in re Cannibal kings and the like – it’s pretty clear there was much exageration.

    Insofar as the Belgians seem to have reduced population density by as much as 50 percent [Jan Vansina (sp) I think has something on this – long time since I read anything on Africa] (via horrific forced labor regimes and atrocities such as chopping off hands and the like for insubordination), one should perhaps question grotesque claims to “morality” in the case of Belgian imperialism vis-a-vis either peripheral slaving on the part of Swahili muslims or odd bits of cannabilism by river kings.

    I should note that allowing what preceded empire was perhaps “less than admirable” does not excuse the sins of the imperialists who pompously proclaimed civilising missions and the like. Rahter, I find it makes the slaughter rather more grotesque to be dressed up in “civilisation” and the like.

    However, that is neither here nor there. Positives and negatives came out of colonial rule, where the balance lies is hard to judge.

  2. mark Says:

    hi Col,

    First the explanation then my minor quibbling.

    I selected the Belgians purposefully precisely because their record as colonialists was horrifying so as to say that even they, a worst case, represented a marginal improvement.(Any half-wit can make an argument that empires are, on balance, pretty good things if they only consider the legacy of the British).

    Now, if the Congo basin was not as I wrote then that would certainly weaken my case. Thomas Pakenham (_Scramble for Africa_) is a good historian and certainly no advocate for imperialism so I’m relying on the credibility of his citations. I concede I may have been over-generalizing in making my point but the cannibalism of the Batatela of the Maniema region at least is well documented.

    Now for the quibbling:

    I wrote ” Afro-Arab” because the slavers weren’t really Arabs per se and the Brits at leat did try to stamp out the slave trade and other extreme cultural practices.

    I did write that the record of empire was *mixed* not a positive good – it is also a larger record than just modern 19th-20th century colonialism. IMHO lots of non-European empires represented great civilizational apogees -T’ang China, Tokugawa Japan, the Caliphate of Cordova, the Ottomans up to Sulemain to name a few.

    I’m not making a “white man’s burden “, West and not the Rest argument but one that complex polities empires *generally* were better systems than their less advanced predecessors whom they conquered.

  3. Dan tdaxp Says:

    I would also say a 2GE might be a pre-modern Empire as well. In desperate situations like Somalia, where the flow was not so much “security” as “food and water,” even the “soft” United Nations engaged in a form of authority-building the Sumerians would have recognized.

  4. The Lounsbury Says:

    Very fair, and understood.

    I should note that my note re the Swahili slave raiders was more color commentary than anything. However, given my recollection, they were still peripheral to the Congo basin at this time.

    Re Congo, taking the estimates I think I recall from Jan Vansina, a colonial rule that results in something on the order of a 50 percent reducation in population (understandably the data are dodgey at best – in any case some very large increase in mortality seems probable), I think we have a case where for at least two generations Euro colonial rule – Belgian scum as it were – was *not* better than what it replaced.

    Some odd cannabilism (again per my old hobbyish readings on Central Africa the sober historians seem to feel the cannabilism accounts were often blown up by local and colonialists alike for convenient political reasons, although certainly did exist), some odd slave trading, reprehensible to be sure, nasty and disgusting certainly on the cannabilism front, but nothing like what in modern terms would amount to a mini-genocide. Given the Belgian system directly gave birth (after an all too brief ‘liberal’ interlude in the 50s) to one of the nastiest and meanest dictatorships the continent has seen (our dear Mobutu Sese Seko – although Uncle Bob in Zim seems to be obsessed with getting in competition with him), I find the Belgians hard to excuse.

    Of course, that may merely be because the Belgians had the means.

    Here, then, is the interesting question. One that is perhaps impossible to answer but makes the counter-factual useful for the stark contrast.

    We can agree the Euros ability to impose “bads” or generically conquer derived from technology and more robust organisation – I believe the military types would call it command and control. Trivial observation, but let me highlight its amorality. Nothing particularly bad or good there.

    The moral argument of “the colonised” that I have most often heard is in regards to the ‘evils’ of social disruption of colonial rule and right to self determination; i.e. ‘we could have done it ourselves, adopted technology….”

    A fair question to pose, but one would then imagine what happens if it had. More bloodshed than with Euro colonial rule? Less? What differences.

    I find this interesting as the underlying and generally only implied contrast is between Euro colonial and some idealised “if they had not come” development scenario.

    Hmmm, perhaps this is not clear, but have to get working.

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