The Empire Strikes Back
A few years in Washington, DC, snake-oil capital of the universe, and you begin to think that anything can be packaged as something else. Well, almost anything. Until I read Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, I would never have believed that a postmodernist paean to Italian anarcho-syndicalism could be presented by its publishers as a defense of "the idealism of the Founders and Abraham Lincoln," and of the universal validity of the US Constitution.
This wonderful joke is the best thing about Hardt and Negri's book, which otherwise is distinguished by a clarity of language and coherence of thought processes that suggest an Italianate Finnegans Wake. Its history is often quite fanciful. Its portrait of the liberating work practices of the postmodern industrial proletariat would seem to be drawn from the life of a SoHo fashion designer. Its vision of the improving possibilities of bioengineering as far as the mass of humanity is concerned displays an extraordinary naïveté concerning the realities of wealth and power. As for its vision of a modern world "empire," this is not without interest as a portrait of certain aspects of "globalization," but the authors' attempts to define this picture as an "empire," and to distinguish "empire" both from "imperialism" and from contemporary American hegemony are strained, to say the least.
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that this curious choice of the word "empire" as a name for these patterns of globalization reflects the new modishness of empire as a subject--as witnessed by the number of books now appearing on this theme. Only a few years ago, to use this word to describe the United States would have branded you automatically as a member of the left. Today, it is being taken up by writers across the spectrum, and with unbridled pride by right-wingers like Max Boot of the Wall Street Journal.
But, as Niall Ferguson notes in the conclusion to his vivid and often insightful history of the British Empire, this new open popularity of empire as a self-description in the United States is so far characteristic only of intellectuals. As far as the mass of the American people is concerned, this is still "an empire in denial." And in presenting its imperial plans to the American people, the Bush Administration has been careful to package them as something else: on the one hand, as part of a benevolent strategy of spreading American values of democracy and freedom; on the other, as an essential part of the defense not of an American empire, but of the American nation itself.
This is something that must be stressed if the power and the danger, but also the fragility, of the Bush program are to be understood: The United States under Bush is driving toward empire, but the domestic political fuel being fed into the engine is that of a wounded and vengeful nationalism. This sentiment is for the most part entirely sincere, and all the more dangerous for that. If recent history is any guide, there is probably no more dangerous element in the nationalist mix than a sense of righteous victimhood. Will this fuel continue to be available to the Bush Administration in its drive for empire? Or to put it another way, will the packaging retain its shine? This depends partly on whether the United States comes under further massive attack by Islamist terrorists, but still more on the extent of the sacrifices that ordinary Americans will be called upon to make for the sake of empire.
An unwillingness on the part of the masses to make serious sacrifices for empire is hardly new. As Ferguson points out, until the First World War the British Empire was conquered and run very much on the cheap, and this was true of the other colonial empires as well. The Royal Navy was of course expensive, but then it doubled as the absolutely necessary defense of the British Isles themselves against invasion or blockade. Then as now, given the overwhelming superiority of Western firepower and military organization, enormous territories could be conquered at very low cost and risk. When European empires ran into areas that were truly costly to conquer and hold--the British in Afghanistan, the Italians in Ethiopia--they tended to back off. And in Ferguson's view, the unprecedentedly high rate of casualties among white British troops in the Boer War helped initiate the process of British disillusionment with empire.
This was something of which the general staffs and the conservative establishments of Europe were well aware. Acute students both of Clausewitz and of police reports on the mood of their working classes, they knew the importance of mass support for any serious war, and the limits on how far empire could be used for purposes of mass mobilization. So sensible governments with the ability to do so always used volunteer troops and foreign mercenaries, not conscripts, for colonial wars--the French Foreign Legion, for instance, was created for this explicit purpose.