Empire (contcult)

Characteristics of Empire:

large territory, composite units, formed out of previously separate units, diverse, unequal, a relationship of domination, core-periphery, local administration, usually by colonized proxies, creation of hybridized practices and identities, flow-counterflow of people, plants, germs, goods, ideas, etc.

imperialism: as a process and a set of ideas. first used with regard to Napoleon III (1860s) and later with the policies of Disraeli, et al, who self-identified as imperialists. 

JA Hobson’s Imperialism identified it as the pursuit of new investment spaces, an idea developed by Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which held that monopoly capitalism and imperialism were identical. This formulation was widely influential even outside Marxist circles, and gave rise to the notion that imperialism was largely a Western phenomenon. Still, others held that imperialism simply meant the domination or control of one people over others, particularly through the mechanism of the State, which allowed for a distinction between formal and informal imperialism. If the former signified absolute physical control then the latter indicated something less direct though still powerful.

In general, most people think of the latter, informal imperialism, when they employ the term: a small group of nations dominates and exploits the rest of the world via state power, TNCs, World Bank, etc. The radical view holds that Empire is more or less synonymous with US foreign policy, which shares certain features with the formal colonialism of the 19th and 20th C. Not so direct. Instead, using client regimes, as well as economic, diplomatic, and cultural forms of control. Military action however is never as they say “off the table” as witnessed in Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan.

Rise of the term colonialism. and its variants: postcolonialism. Colony, colonist, colonial, colonialist, colonize, colonization, etc. orig. ‘colony’ meant a farming settlement. later, a place to which people migrated (plantation). Settlement is the key in this early sense.

Late 19th and early 20th C: the meaning of colony shifts to include all distant areas controlled by mainly European states. The term colonialism was coined as a direct attack on European exploitation. links to white racial hegemony.

alternatives: Chas. W. Mills: “global white supremacy as a political system”

Colonialism and racial schemata are usually linked. 

All of this gets fairly complicated, esp. when we look to historical precedent. The Dutch colonized S. Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries and the descendants of these colonials, the Boers, in turn became the object of British imperialist aggression.  Also, Palestine, a place whose inhabitants were dispossessed by the victims of European genocide. Or even the US, a nation founded by colonizers who gained their political identity via an anti-colonialist struggle with England.

Other, non-European examples: Portugal and Indonesia in East Timor, Turkey in Kurdistan, Mongol Empire, Ottoman Empire….

From Robert J.C. Young’s Postcolonialism:

“both colonialism and imperialism involved forms of subjugation of one people by another” (15)

caravels were the key to colonization– sea-based empires no longer necessarily contiguous.

American style colonialism:

extraction of natural wealth, conversion of indigenes

“the militant Spanish drive for conversion to Christianity was an imitation of the Islamic Jihad that had been responsible for the Moors’ colonization of Spain” (16)

US: Pilgrims fled England, rather than acting on its behalf?

Empire precedes imperialism by several centuries as a category of human activity.

splitting empire into colonialism and imperialism:

the latter developed via the state for financial gain and ideological reasons, the former centered on settlement for the purpose of trade.

“colonization was pragmatic and until the 19C generally developed locally in a haphazard way”

imperalism bears scrutiny as a concept while colonialism need be thought of as a practice

Historical imperialism: Roman, Ottoman, Spanish on the one hand; late 19C Europe on the other. 

Colonialism: 1) settlement 2) exploitation

French: colonization or domination. “Mission civilisatrice”. Brits: dominions or dependencies

a 3rd possible category: “maritime enclaves” (ie Guantanamo, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Guam, Diego Garcia, Malacca)


JM Coetzee’s essay “Into the Dark Chamber” and Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Lecture.

And here’s the link to the Lucas article on US interventions since WWII.

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