The somewhat new school - in the grossest sense of space and time - concept of the Westphallic Nation/State by design sheds light on Imperium.
Why even think about empires? We live in a world of nation-states — over 200 of them, each with their seat in the UN, their flag, postage stamps and governmental institutions. Yet the nation-state is an ideal of recent origin and uncertain future and, for many, devastating consequences.
It is not a question of sinking into imperial nostalgia: sentimental evocations of the British Raj or French Indochina have nothing to offer to our present political thinking. Similarly, imperial name-calling — invoking “empire” or “colonialism” to discredit US, French or other interventions — cannot help us analyse or improve today’s world.
An exploration of the histories of empires, old and new, can expand our understanding of how the world came to be what it is, and the organisation of political power in the past, the present and even the future.
Over a very long time, the practices and interactions of empires configured the contexts in which people acted and thought. Examining the trajectories of empires — their creations, conflicts, rivalries, successes and failures — reminds us of something we have forgotten: that sovereignty in the past, and in many areas today, is complex, divided, layered and configured on a variety of founding principles and practices.
Empire has existed in relation to — and often in tension with — other forms of connection over space; empires facilitated and obstructed movements of goods, capital, people and ideas. Empire building was almost always a violent process, and conquest was often followed by exploitation, if not forced acculturation and humiliation. Empires constructed powerful political formations, and also left trails of human suffering. However, the national idea, developed in imperial contexts, has not proved effective, to judge by the unresolved conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.
We live with the consequences of these uneven and broken paths out of empire, the fiction of sovereign equivalence and the reality of inequality within and among states.
Thinking about empire does not mean resurrecting vanished worlds. It allows us rather to consider the multiplicity of forms in which power is exercised across space. If we can avoid thinking of history as an inexorable transition from empire to nation-state, perhaps we can think about the future more expansively. Can we imagine forms of sovereignty that are better able to address a world marked by inequality and diversity?
Pic - "Empire of Liberty"