What is an Empire?

What is the meaning of "empire", is there an empire today, and if so what is its nature and what role does Canada play within it? These are questions I shall try to answer in the following brief remarks.

The traditional form of empire

The term empire derives from the Latin word "imperium", meaning sovereignty or military domination, and, by extension, a grouping of territories subject to such domination. The English word is most often used in this second sense, and evokes a powerful state possessing or exercising control, through its military strength, over a multitude of other nations. Sometimes this control is direct, in which case the nations in question are outright possessions or colonies of the imperial power. This was the case, for example, in most of the Roman, British, French, Russian, Spanish, Portugese, and Dutch empires. In other cases the imperial power acts through a government of collaborators within the dominated nations. Such an arrangement was found in ancient times in parts of the Roman Empire like Judaea, amd in modern times in parts of India, Morocco, and elsewhere, as well as in the case of what is called the American Empire.

The British Empire
British Empire
Empires in this sense have a centre, called the metropolitan power, and a periphery of dominated countries, often scattered around the entire globe. The primary function of imperial organization is economic, specifically to provide resources for the industry of the metropolitan power. For economic purposes, and therefore in government, law, and education, the dominated countries are forced to adopt the language -- be it Latin, English, French, Spanish, or Russian -- of the so-called mother country. Occasionally this economic arrangement benefits some of the dominated states, especially those in close proximity to the centre. One could cite Italy, Spain and southern Gaul in the Roman Empire, or Canada in the former British Empire and in the contemporary American Empire. Most often, however, the territories in the periphery of the empire are exploited and their populations reduced to a kind of national slavery. Their natural resources are harvested for the industry and consumption of the imperial power.

In plain language, one could say that these resources are stolen. At the same time it is not just the resources that are stolen, but also the labour power of the population, which the imperial economy usually reduces to subsistence-level poverty at the best, and to starvation at the worst. The arable land of the dominated countries was in ancient empires the property of slave-owners, and in modern times it has been that of capitalist enterprises in the imperial state or their local agents. The land is given over to the cultivation of crops for export to the metropolitan state, and these have included commodities such as rubber, cotton, coffee, tea, cocoa, and tropical fruits, not to mention narcotics in the informal economy. Most of the population of a colony is employed, with minimal remuneration, either in the production of export crops or in the extraction of mineral and petroleum resources. The workers in the periphery states are, because of their subsistence-level remuneration, largely excluded from the possibility of consuming the materials they themselves produce.

Emergence of an American Empire

In the late 1800's, after a continental expansion made possible through historically unprecedented ethnic cleansing and genocidal war, the United States began to emerge on the world scene as a major industrial economy and as a global imperial state. The capitalist class in the United States, formally if not substantially tied to a liberal, republican ideology, did not favour the outright conquest and ownership of foreign countries as did the European empires. But the architecture of economic control it put in place created a genuine American Empire, and politically this Empire has had the configuration not of outright colonies, but of satellite economies in subordinate states, each with a class of local collaborators maintaining order through military repression. The institutional agent of the American Empire has been the American multinational corporation, which has assumed the traditional imperial role of controlling and consuming the produce of the land, minerals, and labour of dominated nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Canada has been part of this empire, but being closely integrated into the continental economy, has escaped the pauperization that typically results from imperial control.

Corporate globalization and empire

Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein
In the late twentieth century, the architecture of Empire changed through the globalization of multinational corporations. This phenomenon has seen the transfer of manufacturing, and more recently of marketing and similar services, out of the United States and other First World countries into the low-wage zones of China, India, southeast Asia, and Latin America. Corporate globalization has thereby destroyed the old distinction between "wealthy industrialized" and "poor non-industrialized" countries, between what used to be called the developed and the underdeveloped worlds. American corporations remain largely American in ownership, but non-American in production. Indeed, as Canadian economist Naomi Klein has shown in her book No Logo, wealthy as they may be, in the globalized economy the only thing these corporations actually produce is a brand name. Their primary function is to supervise the moving around of goods, services, and extraordinary volumes of cash, transferring them from the poor to the less poor and to the very wealthy, namely themselves.

This globalized economy is associated with a state of permanent war, led principally by the American government. Since empires can be maintained only by military force, there has always been a close association between empire and war. The main debate today among analysts of imperial power is whether or not this state of war is an attribute of American imperialism, in other words, whether it is a consequence of the desire of one independent nation state to control all others, or whether, on the contrary, the role of the traditional nation state, including the United States, has, with transnational corporate globalization of the economy, given way to a new kind of imperial order in which economic exploitation is carried out independently of the interests of particular imperial nations.

Hardt and Negri's Empire

This latter view is articulated in a work that has been hailed by numerous specialists as the most important book in political theory to have appeared in many decades. Entitled Empire, it was published in 2000 by Italian philosopher Antonio Negri and his American student Michael Hardt. Negri and Hardt give an account of European and American social philosophy from classical antiquity to the present day, organizing this account around the opposition between a transcendent, or vertical, top-down conception of power, and an immanent, or horizontal conception of power exercised by the multitude. The term empire is used to designate supranational sovereignty and exploitation. Empire is an expression of transcendent power, but in today's globalized corporate economy it denotes not a metropolitan territory controlling dependent peripheral territories and societies, but rather the de-centred, de-territorialized exercise of sovereignty by the transnational corporate Úlite.

Antonio Negri
Antonio Negri
Negri and Hardt are optimistic, arguing that this new form of Empire does not mean the defeat of alternatives to exploitative capitalism, but indeed the opportunity for the mulitude to resist such exploitation on a global scale. The reverse side of this obeservation is that, as Negri writes in his November 2002 essay "The Order of War", "Nationalisms, even and especially those advocated by the Left" -- in Canada we can think of Maude Barlow -- "represent a great danger, giving rise to the illusion that imperial rule based on capitalist exploitation can be influenced or even beaten at the nation-state level."

In today's world, only the American military force is strong enough to police the new, supranational imperial order. U.S. militarism, write Negri and Hardt, "acts not in imperialist interest but in imperial interest", that is to say, "not as a function of its own national motives but in the name of global right" (Empire, p. 180).

An American Empire after all?

However Negri and Hardt have not definitively laid to rest the notion of a specifically American Empire. Certainly the United States maintains a far-reaching military occupation of the world, with warships in every ocean and military bases in no fewer than sixty-nine countries. Invasions of weak foreign countries are carried out primarily by the United States. Recent years have seen the production of a vast literature on this topic, including works by right-wing writers, like American General Wesley Clark, Canadian Michael Ignatieff, and Englishman Niall Ferguson, who believe that the American Empire is a good thing, and by others, like Americans Benjamin Barber, Chalmers Johnson, Noam Chomsky, Frenchmen Alain Joxe, Ignacio Ramonet, Emmanuel Todd, and Egyptian Samir Amin, who analyze American global domination as empire from various centre-right or leftist points of view.

World divided into U.S. Command zones
US Command zones
At the time of the invasion of Iraq, Antonio Negri spoke of an American "coup d'Útat against the other forces that constitute, multilaterally, the Empire" (in the French journal Multitudes, April, 2003). It would perhaps not be wrong to see two planetary empires co-existing, a globalized supranational capitalist empire of the type Negri and Hardt describe, and within that, an American national empire seeking to establish hegemony primarily through brute military force. In both cases, Canada's economy with its Canadian and foreign multinational corporations, Canada's entrepreneurial class with its North American Free Trade Agreement, and Canada's armed forces that escort U.S. miltary vessels into the Iraq war zone, that in Afghanistan travel in American helicopter gunships and hand over prisoners to be tortured in American concentration camps, are fully integrated into the stuctures of imperial domination.

James MacLean

Contribution to the panel "Canada's Role in Empire", sponsored by the St. John's Campaign Against War
March 16, 2006.

Other essays by James MacLean

Observations and analyses in these essays are those of the author, and are not to be attributed to the service provider or to any institution.