HS-107 Readings


The empire is a human organization characterized by the existence of a heirarchy in which a relatively small ruling class dominates the great majority of the people. The ruler, usually a king or emperor, rules with the support of a ruling elite consisting typically of an army, a priesthood, and a small but widespread bureaucracy. The ruling elite usually live in cities and their political power is used to extract resources from the rural areas where most of the people live and work.

The empire is typically a human organization which exists in a food producing or agricultural economy. It is too large a group to be sustained by a hunting and gathering economy, and, for the reasons to be explained below, it is threatened and cannot endure indefinitely in an industrial economy.

The empire depends for its stability upon the illiteracy of the peasantry, the lack of a common written language, the lack of education, and the lack of mobility and means of communication which would bring about a greater awareness of a larger world. The great majority, typically a peasantry, live in small farm villages, rarely travel beyond the narrow limits of the village, and experience great privation and poverty in spite of long and hard and continuous labor. A large share of the fruits of their labor are extracted from them for use in the cities for the benefit of the ruling classes.

The cohesive forces which hold the empire together are a combination of military force, and a religion which identifies the distant, almighty ruler with a god. The more efficient empires also include in their ruling elites the citizens of the cities from whose ranks are selected the soldiers and the bureacrats. The citizens are motivated by the sense of identity and kinship they have with their city, and they are loyal supporters of the imperial system because their cities are the center and primary beneficiaries of that system. A code of law promulgated in the cities, and enforced by the bureacrats and the army, further stabilizes the empire. The peasantry, however, are the larger proportion of the population, live in isolated rural areas, do not share the privileges and material advantages of the ruling elite, and are subjects rather than citizens. They, therefore, being subordinate and inferior to the ruling elite, cannot feel any sense of kinship in the empire. Although the empires have endured in the agricultural era for many centuries, their greatest potential source of weakness and instability is the lack of a feeling of kinship among the majority of the population.

The nature of the empire as a type of human group must also be discussed in relationship to the concepts of sovereignty and community. Sovereignty is the recognized authority to make the final political decisions for a human organization or group. Community is the collective sum of the individuals, who share a common sense of identity, in a human society or culture. Sovereignty may reside in the entire community, or it may reside in only a portion of the community, or the community may have outgrown the organization or group which exercises sovereign power.

During the food gathering era, the community was the clan or tribe, and sovereign power rested with the entire community. There was a high degree of equality among the individual members, and a sense of kinship between them. During the agricultural era, empires were larger than any one of the communities within their control, sovereign power rested only in the hands of an elite few, there was very little equality among the population, and no sense of kinship except among some of the ruling class.

When sovereignty rests in the entire community, people have a sense of equality and dignity and self empowerment, and the organization can acquire great strength, stability, and endurance which is derived from the creative energies and loyalty of the people. When sovereignty rests in only a small portion of the people, those excluded feel a sense of powerlessness and degradation and inferiority. They may resign themselves to their fate if they have no hope and no faith that they can change their circumstances. But, if opportunity beckons, and there is hope and faith, they are likely to try to achieve a share of the sovereign power. In such an event, the ruling elite, which monopolizes power, is rarely willing to share it with others, and conflict ensues. This is the dynamic situation which is at work in every empire and which periodically threatens the stability and endurance of the empire.

When the organization or group is too small to include all the members of the community, and the needs, concerns and interests of the community extend beyond the scope of the group there will be a conflict of interest between groups. This is a fundamental cause for war. To express it another way, when sovereign power is not exercised over the entire community, war is likely to occur.

During the hunting and gathering era, wars were rare and not very disruptive because population densities were low and potentially rival tribes distant from one another. The primitive technology limited the destructiveness when wars did occur, and fighting was never sustained because the limited economy required the warriors to put off fighting in favor of hunting and gathering for their survival.

During the agricultural era, wars became more frequent, more sustained and more destructive. Rival city states fought each other until eventually one became sufficiently powerful to create an empire, that is to dominate the others by military force, or until outside invaders brought all of the city-states under their imperial rule. Expanding populations and expanding economies brought separate empires into contact and wars with each other until they also were united by force into larger empires. Because of the inherent instability of empires, as described above, they periodically disintegrated, usually hastened to their demise by outside invasion. Thus a cycle of expansion and collapse was set up which endured throughout the agricultural era. This history can be traced from the time of the Sumerian city-states (approximately 4000 B.C.) until modern times.

Empires have survived into the industrial era, but they have been no match for the nation-state which became the principal form of political organization in the modern industrial era. The pre-conditions for industrialization in Europe included improved technology in communications (the printing press), the development of the vernacular languages, an expanding rate of literacy, a rising merchant class with the opportunity and hope to share sovereign power, and improved security provided by the national monarchies. A scientific revolution which provided rational answers to basic questions about nature created a hope that rational solutions to political and economic questions might also be found. A growing constituency of literate and skeptical people questioned the authority of the monarchies to continue to exercise sovereignty. The concept that the people were sovereign gained increasing support in 17th and 18th century Europe. An idea was born which would ensure that the days of kings and emperors and empires were numbered. A time would surely come when a community could survive only if the sovereign power was invested in all of its members.

The empire has persisted in instances in which the nation-state, by virtue of its more efficient organization and higher levels of technology, has extended its power beyond its own community to dominate other groups and other peoples. Just as the city-state, in ancient times, sometimes became the core of an empire, so the nation-state, in modern times became the core of empire. The Napoleonic Empire is an early, if shortlived, example of such an empire, based upon French national feeling and military superiority. In just a few years, because it overstepped the limits of its power and created a coalition of enemies, it quickly collapsed. A similar example, the most extreme example, is that of the German Third Reich under Adolf Hitler.

Other types of empires, which have had their origins in pre-industrial times, have been swept away in the 20th century by powerful national forces. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, once dominant groups in southeastern Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa, could no longer contain the restless national communities over which they had held sway. The Russian Empire was on the verge of collapse at the end of World War I, but gained a temporary new lease on life (under the name of the Soviet empire) with the consolidation of Bolshevik central power after the Russian civil war.

There also were numerous empires created by European nation-states, which dominated extensive areas of the non-European world as a result of the European trans-oceanic expansion beginning in the 15th century and continuing into the 20th century. The pre-eminent example of this type of empire was the British empire which reached its prime in the l9th century because of its industrial and technological leadership. Most of these types of empires have collapsed in the 45 years since the end of World War II. In the 1990's we are witnessing the final collapse of the Russian Empire. The Afrikaner-dominated state of South Africa may also be defined as an empire because the Afrikaners, 20% of the population, dominated and exploited the majority. This empire, widely condemned by the world community, also disintegrated in the 1990's.

The American empire is the most extensive, and most vigorous survivor of the age of empires which began about 6,000 years ago. As with all of the most recent empires, its power has been based upon the nation-state, and upon a high level of technology. It is unique among empires because it originated as the first national community to itself break away from an empire. There is, therefore, an inner contradiction between its origins and its present imperial policies. While principles of freedom and equality associated with its founding as a nation are still upheld within its national borders towards its own citizenry, it dominates and exploits communities and peoples outside its national borders. Some of the European colonial empires had similar characteristics as democratic, representative institutions developed at home while exploitation continued abroad. This dichotomy demonstrates that democratic governments can be the seat of empires. One does not have to have a king or an emperor. The colonized people are exploited in either case.

This situation arises from the great disparity in power between the national core and less developed regions which have been colonized. The disparity creates the temptation to expand. The political and economic interests of an industrial power are so extensive that there are bound to be influential minorities who can persuade the government that there is a reason to intervene abroad. Using the example of the United States, the temptation to create an empire emerged as early as 1848 when the United States had defeated Mexico and American marines occupied Mexico City. It would have been possible at that time for the United States to annex all of Mexico. Had that occurred, the United States would have exercised imperial control over a large population of people of a different culture. For domestic political reasons, the United States was not prepared to take that step. Fifty years later, however, after a dynamic increase in industrial power and following upon the defeat of Spain in the Spanish American War, the United States did, indeed, become an empire. Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines all fell under the domination of the United States. In the first half of the 20th century, many countries in Central America and the Caribbean fell, either directly or indirectly, under the sway of American imperial power. This empire had been created almost as an afterthought, without the involvement or the concern of most of the national leadership. Because the majority were not concerned or simply assumed that it was natural that the United States should extend its power overseas, a small elite in the leadership were able to seize the initiative.

At the end of World War II, the United States had become a great global power. When hostilities developed between the United States and the Soviet Union, this conflict became the pre-eminent focus of United States foreign policy. The Cold War, which was defined by the United States government in the Truman Doctrine of 1947 as a global confrontation with communism, was the most frequently used excuse for further imperial expansion. Meanwhile, the majority of the citizenry were preoccupied with domestic and local affairs, and not aware of what was going on in distant places, nor what effect this had upon their lives. The policy did not have an obvious or immediate effect, and it was easily justified to the people through an appeal to their national loyalty. When the policy became obviously disturbing, as the Vietnam War eventually did, popular pressure belatedly compelled the government to retreat. But in a nation as big and powerful as that of the United States, enormous resources and power can be applied abroad before most people become concerned or aware of the policy. Only after the imperial exploitation had been carried out for years or even decades did an explosion occur that awakened enough people to compell a temporary retreat. The withdrawal was difficult and unnecessarily prolonged because of a sense of national shame which people were reluctant to acknowledge. Thus an unacceptable policy was perpetuated to deeper levels.

Another element that is characteristic of the American empire is the inability to admit or recognize that there is an empire. The idea of an empire is opposed to the ideology of a democratic nation-state. The only way the empire can continue to exist is by pretending that it doesn't exist. The intervention is justified by the rhetoric and the belief that the cause of democracy or private enterprise or freedom is being served, or that some evil force, typically communism or Marxism, is being opposed. In order to be most effective in intervention, it is best to pretend that there is no intervention. That is accomplished by avoiding the use of American soldiers, and supporting a country elite, and providing military aid by which the oppressed majority can be controlled. Of course, there is a risk that the army thus created will not always serve American interests, so the empire is somewhat clumsy and decentralized. The recently deposed Panamanian dictator, Noriega, is an example of an American imperial satrap who stepped out of line and had to be removed.

The Iranian Shah was becoming increasingly independent of his American masters by the time of his overthrow. Because he had terrorized and brutalized his people with the military aid of the United States, America became, in the eyes of the Iranians, the great source of evil in the world. American imperial intervention in Chile, in Guatemala, in El Salvador, invoked in the cause of opposing socialism and communism, led to the establishment of brutal military dictatorships whose armies had been trained and equipped by the United States and who maintain themselves in power by terrorizing and murdering their own people.

Why is it that such policies, so contrary to the traditions of civil rights of the individual and self-government with which the United States had its origins, became acceptable to the American people? There are a host of reasons. Ignorance and apathy of the majority of the American public is one factor. National self-delusion is another; the tendency to naively accept the virtuosity of their own national government. Fear and obsession with an alleged communist threat to the "free world" is another. Perpetuation of the delusions by the American media most of which shared the same misconceptions generally held by the public; pre-occupation with domestic interests which more directly affect the daily lives of the people; greed and the quest for profits on the part of an industrial elite which exploited the cheap labor in the empire, were other factors.

There is a powerful corrupting influence at work when a democratic government is the seat of an empire. The use of military force, the creation of armies and police to control a population by creating an atmosphere of terror and fear, the denial of freedoms, even the denial of life are the means by which an empire is maintained. Citizens of the democracy are trained and become proficient in the application of such methods. The Vietnam War was a great training ground for Americans. Experts in counter-insurgency train and equip the local armies and police to terrorize their own people. They learn attitudes and ways of doing things which are antithetical to the democratic way. They are a part of government agencies which are designated to enforce the law, but they have learned to operate in a lawless environment. The agencies, themselves, are therefore in danger of being corrupted. In the final analysis, justice at home cannot be separated from justice abroad. The tension between the democratic nation-state and the empire destabilizes the empire and corrupts the nation-state. They cannot co-exist indefinitely. The virtues and resources of the ancient Athenian city-state were destroyed and exhausted by the attempt to maintain an empire. The Roman Republic, based on a city-state, became corrupted by the requirements of maintaining an empire, and gave way to imperial rule. In the modern, industrializing world people are becoming educated and aware, and rising up and overthrowing empires. The United States, born out of a successful struggle to wrest its freedom from an empire, is paradoxically, the principal remaining empire at the end of the 20th century, and its virtues as a republic are being corrupted by the demands of empire. The Iran-Contra scandal is a case in point. The almost total exclusion of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees from asylum in the United States as they sought to escape death and torture in their homeland, is another example. Its position of moral leadership in the world, for which there was some justification at the end of World War II, has been cast to the winds by the failure to identify with the needs of people crying for justice all over the world.

The empire is in its final days. In the empire, sovereignty extends beyond the community and all those people, who are not a part of the community, are exploited. Ever since the end of the 17th century, the idea that the people are sovereign has been spreading. Therefore, sovereignty must coincide with the community. The community that was created by the levels of education and technology existent in the 18th and 19th centuries was the nation state. In the 20th century, levels of education and technology, and economic and environmental circumstances have expanded the community beyond the nation-state, while sovereignty remains limited to the nation-state.

HS-22 Readings