the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2009 December 18


Any discussion of empire is bound to be, at least in part, a terminological one. The word ‘empire’ has been used in too many ways to permit a discussion about whether a particular phenomenon definitively is or is not an empire. The word has, creditably, taken on a strong negative connotation for many. Less creditably, this leads to its use as a kind of epithet, applied to any polity of which the speaker disapproves, in part with hopes that the negative freight of the word may engender subconscious disapproval in the listener. It is difficult to applaud something labelled as “empire”1, and to achieve success in labelling something as “empire” is halfway to seeing it condemned.

It is this action that makes possible a book like ‘Empire’ by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and that makes useful a book like ‘Hegemony’ by John Agnew. Hardt and Negri adopt the term in a flourish of exaggeration and distortion, and with a keen eye towards the market. The book is called simply ‘Empire’; the entity described in the book is given no modifier, not even an article.2 It is ‘Empire’ as proper noun3, sui generis, sole possessor of the term, from which all other uses are deviations.

Hardt’s and Negri’s Empire is, masterly branding effort notwithstanding, a very different beast from empires past. It is not specifically a territorial control power, except insofar as it has global reach and under it the entire globe is a unified territory. It is certainly not an identifiable government structure; it is, rather, a system of various organizations and even nebulous forces with a pervasive and insidious influence. And its unorganized directorate, to the extent that it can be said to have one, consists simply of the wealthy and the generically powerful in society, working for their own (nefarious, of course) purposes without reference to a greater project, but contributing to it nonetheless, and serving therefore as the agents of the “invisible hand”, to make a not-terribly-inappropriate extension of Adam Smith’s metaphor. Even the United States government does no more than play a key role in Empire; the US president would presumably be powerless to thwart Empire, even were he ever so (irrationally) selflessly inclined.

Agnew has Hardt and Negri partially in mind as he offers ‘hegemony’ as an alternative term. He is also, though, responding to the deliberate (but affectedly nonchalant) use of ‘empire’ to describe the United States in the post-Cold War world, and in particular the post-September 11 world. Hugo Chávez can toss off ‘Imperio’ as a bon mot (or perhaps not always so bon), and no one is forced to ask what entity he has in mind. A large segment of the left in the United States, and an even larger segment of the left in Europe (bleeding into the mainstream)4, refers to the United States as an empire, sometimes blithely and sometimes venomously.

And in reality, the United States is an empire; so, though, is Bolivarian Venezuela, and all of its allies, as well as most other current states, and an even-greater proportion of past states. The critics of the US, and certainly Hardt and Negri, are not using ‘empire’ in a careful historical (or perhaps more precisely, historiographic) sense. An empire has been a particular kind of state, in which a particular internal power structure obtains. But to reach a workable understanding of what empire is, rather than what it is not, we must briefly examine more basic concepts first.


Fundamental political concepts

Like ‘empire’, ‘government’ and ‘state’ are also problematic terms.5 A thorough discussion of their historical use in various literatures would fail the test of value to effort (including reading effort). But the key distinction can be traced to Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg, who note, of ‘state’, that it is used in a juridical sense and an empirical sense. Of course, to say that a term can be used empirically and in some other way suggests that the second way is a departure from reality. And in my judgement, Jackson and Rosberg have the terms about right. The obsessive examination of juridical assessments of statehood, as takes place in international-legal institutions and in the work of scholars such as James Crawford, implies that some resolution is possible. In the end, though, juridical statehood is entirely in the eye of the beholder, at least for true believers such as (presumably) Crawford. It is also a device of tremendous abuse by the entities recognized as states. As full members of the Westphalian club, they employ sophistry and disingenuousness to protect their claims to membership, to protect the extent of their recognized “sovereign”6 territories, and to exclude from the club any organizations or groups of individuals who might challenge these claims and this recognition.

Empirical statehood, by contrast, is a relatively-straightforward business. An empirical state exists where there is effective government, meaning actual control7 of territory and the people and resources within that territory. The standard for government, to paraphrase Janice Thomson, is the ability to make rules and successfully enforce them. Government, in this understanding, is the organization that wields control; state is the territorial system created by this control. Control does indeed come first. The notion that a territory exists first, over which control is then extended, is a part of Westphalian myth. Obviously, the Westphalian system recognizes such pre-ordained territories, and wishes them to be perpetuated as a security for the other members’ territories; thus would they preserve what Jackson calls “negative sovereignty”, the freedom to rule a given territory without interference that is granted by one Westphalian entity to another. Such negative sovereignty leads in turn to what Jackson calls “quasi-states”8, which are recognized as legitimate states, even though they fail to control the territory reserved for them under the Westphalian system.

If multiple separate organizations cooperate to govern a specific territory, then for that territory they collectively serve as the government. This kind of systemic government can comprise only organizations confined to the territory, or it can include one or more organizations that have governmental interests elsewhere. The former case could theoretically exist if a secular and a clerical institution each wielded some degree of control over a particular society. The latter case has clear applications in past and present, with the papacy sharing control over certain Medieval European territories with a local warlord (of some appropriate feudal title), and the United States sharing control over Iraq with an elected indigenous administration.9

Jeffrey Herbst, Michel Foucault, Agnew (1994, 2009), and Paul Hirst have all raised doubts about the notion of a territorial state.10 Herbst in particular views the notion of the inherently-territorial state as a serious comparative failure. He offers examples from pre-colonial Africa where, he claims, governments ruled people, not territories. Foucault, Hirst, and Agnew (2009) invoke the nomadic society, and Hirst additionally invokes the Hanse. Hirst’s argument is particularly flawed; he claims that “states” (meaning territorial Westphalian entities) were victorious in a struggle for power in Europe against a variety of non-territorial actors. He achieves this by retroactively and anachronistically designating only those entities that survived the power struggle as “the states”. It is hardly surprising, then, that “the states” were the ultimate victors.

Herbst’s claim is that pre-colonial African polities were states even though they were not territorial. He is right to include these polities as states, but only because they were, in fact, territorial. It may be that rulers thought of themselves ruling populations, not lands (similar to the situation that existed in Europe for much of the same time); but exclusive rule over a settled population amounts to rule of the territory occupied by the settled population, and Herbst specifically invokes the ability of escape. In other words, dissatisfied subjects could move beyond the reach of the ruler, and thus escape his control. This, obviously, is exactly the opposite of the case for population rule that Herbst is trying to make; a person is subject to the ruler’s control only when in a certain territory, and free of it otherwise.

The case of nomadic societies provides exactly one quasi-governmental example. This would be the specific (hypothetical) example of a nomadic band holding something portable to ransom, and therefore controlling specific individuals by means of their interest in that valuable thing; perhaps the easiest thing to imagine serving this purpose would be a family member held prisoner. In this case, and this case only, the individual may be coerced into remaining with the band and following its laws; such nomadic ransom groups have surely not been common in history, and failure to include them as governments cannot amount to a comparative flaw. In all other nomadic cases, the individual is free to leave, to live where the nomadic band is not present, and coercion is therefore not a reality. If the individual is simply not emotionally capable of separating itself from the group, this, too, is not coercion.

Nomadic groups may still provide a (territorial) government. In the most obvious sense, the territory of a government need not be fixed for any particular length of time, and so the immediate area occupied by the nomadic group and controlled by it is indeed a governmental region. This sort of camp demesne applies to all nomadic bands. Additionally, a nomadic band may attempt to control areas within its range that it does not immediately occupy, monitoring the range through scouts, and dispatching sorties, essentially police actions, to enforce its laws. At the extreme, the group may successfully control all of its range in this way. Regardless, though, any territory that it does control in this way is within its governmental domain; it is the government for that territory.

And finally, the possibility of a nomadic band living (for a time) interspersed with another group, with each group subject to its own laws, enforced by a separate authority, is simply another example of the creation of a systemic government — an organization composed of more than one organization, each of which participates in a governmental division of labor. For whatever time such a band happened to live under this arrangement, it would be subject to this systemic government and a part of the population of the relevant governmental region.

It is worth remarking, while considering the notion of governments and states and preparing to consider the notion of empires, that there is a great deal more historical continuity than many wish to acknowledge. Obviously, in one sense every individual thing is unique. In another, they are all things, and thus qualitatively the same — that is, members of the same category. We are bound to make categories to understand our world. We can always form new categories by applying modifiers to the members of an old category, and then claim that these things are qualitatively different. We can usually follow the process in reverse, grouping multiple categories by a commonality, and then claim that these things are qualitatively the same. This is not, in most cases, a logical error; both activities are valid. The question is, which is more useful in a particular examination? In one sense, at least, I agree with Herbst; if we fail to see salient characteristics of modern polities in the polities of history, our comparative rigor has failed. The governments and states of the past were not exactly like those of today; they had different physical powers, they ruled on average fewer people and smaller territories, they often made different rationalizations for their rule, they were less likely to be democratic, and they were not operating within the same interstate system, for what that is worth. But considering the great differences among modern states (all yet accepted as states), and taking into account the most fundamental properties of governments and their relations with persons and land, states have always been much as they are now. We should seek to understand empires in the same way, refusing to assign states of past or present to the category of empire (or not) until we have determined what an empire is; or, if it cannot be definitively determined, to define it ourselves, and adhere to the definition, so that other uses can be understood as, if “empires” at all, then empires of a different sort.


A definition of ‘empire’

Dominic Lieven begins his study of imperial Russia with a careful look at “empire”. He is, however, considering the word ‘empire’, its cognates, its translations, and its glosses, as well as the referents of all of these. My only concern at present is the modern English word ‘empire’ and its referents. Is there a commonality for at least the greater part of these referents, and if so, can it be located in other cases, so that they, too, should be classed as empires?

The modern historiographic meaning of ‘empire’ seems usually to involve the rule of one people over another. The general definition offered by Michael Doyle captures much of the idea: “effective control, whether formal or informal, of a subordinated society by an imperial society” [p30]. The “conquest” of land alone, for instance, is not sufficient. If a population moves into an unoccupied land and takes control of it, this would add to the size of its state, but not change its internal population structure, not in any way change the power relationships in the internal society (and because the land is empty, there is no other society involved). It is the same state as before; it has not, by the act of expanding its territory, become an empire, though it certainly may have been an empire already.

Most historical empires have not been democratic, so it is difficult, in any modern understanding, to attribute the rule of an empire to an entire people. The direct composition of a government, whether or not democratic, is nearly always a subset of the governed population. It is necessary, then, to clarify carefully the relationship not just between the two peoples, but between each people and the imperial government.

Finally, peoples have been defined in various ways over time — for example, by descent, language, religion, land, personal affiliation, and common citizenship. And theoretically, any group defined in one of these ways can conquer and rule over another group defined in one of these ways, or even defined in another way. A nation united by language could conquer another nation united by (different) language. A nation united by religion could conquer a nation united by place of birth.

The most useful definition of ‘empire’, then, most like the broadest historical usages of the term, and acknowledging the precedence of Doyle11 (among others, no doubt), is that of a state in which the subject population is divided, by something other than age or sex, into two distinct classes, an imperial class and a subordinate class; whose government is drawn from the imperial class; and with benefits, burdens, and rules favoring the imperial class over the subordinate class. As a special, historically-important subset of empire, we can speak of a territorial empire in which the imperial class and the subordinate class are territorially distinct — that is, each has an association with a different specific territory.

The age and sex distinctions are necessary to approximate more closely the historical contours of empire. Even democracies divide their subjects by age, with the young unable to participate fully in citizenship. In the United States, as an example, there are even multiple thresholds (16, 18, 21, 25, 30, 35), each bringing a new level of participation. How much of this is desirable is a fair question, and my own position is that a single, relatively-young age of full citizenship is most in keeping with the liberal ideal. At some point the term ‘gerontocracy’ might be applicable, though this would be an arbitrary point, and any such definition would not correlate well with the vernacular conception of empires.

Obviously most historical polities deprived females of full citizenship, and quite a few still do so. But ‘patriarchy’ adequately captures an arrangement in which males compose the government and derive disproportionate benefits from it. If sex were permitted in the definition of ‘empire’, it would hardly possess additional descriptive power beyond ‘patriarchy’.

More importantly, the rejection of each of these distinctions is also consistent with the quest to isolate peoples. Age and sex are inherent differences within peoples, all peoples as might exist naturally. Populations united by descent, language, religion, land, personal affiliation, or common citizenship can persist throughout time, whereas populations united by sex or age cannot. And a careful definition for ‘empire’ can be useful in illuminating power imbalances, but there are adequate tools for discussing power imbalances by sex in particular, owing to its classificational simplicity and prevalence.

In the democratic era, one clear distinction of power between classes arises when only one class is entitled to vote (excepting again distinctions of age and sex). If a state is not democratic, it is likely to meet the definition of empire, and the main challenge is to determine how inclusive is the imperial class. But majority rule, constitutional provisions, and the Westphalian system can be used to deny self-determination of peoples even in a fully-democratic context. Independence is a major benefit available only to certain peoples in the democratic era, and possession of a Westphalian franchise (that is, a recognized sovereignty) and acknowledged “nation-statehood”, though not necessary for independence (witness Taiwan), is a valuable device for securing independence. The minority that wishes self-determination but is constantly outvoted is still a subordinate class, possession of the vote notwithstanding.

As polities have grown in population and diversity, the number of potential empires has grown. It would in fact be difficult to identify a state without an internal relationship of empire. (San Marino and some of the island states are perhaps the only valid examples.) And if virtually every state past and present is an empire, the value of the definition may be suspect.12 To respond to that issue explicitly, this definition of ‘empire’, and in particular the concepts of imperial class and subordinate class, are primarily intended as tools for understanding intrastate (and to some extent interstate) power relationships. From the analytical perspective, there is comparative use, as it allows us to identify similar processes across states. From the normative perspective, it is worth noting that what we find objectionable about empires that are easy to identify is equally objectionable in empires that are hard to identify. It is not enough simply to say that most states are empires; it is necessary to examine how they are empires.


Empires despotic and democratic

The most conventional empire, based on history, is one in which the imperial and subordinate classes are widely recognized as distinct peoples (or, in many cases, groups of peoples) with distinct homelands. These territorial empires have historically been undemocratic. Surviving to the present day are states like Russia, shorn of many nations formerly subject (through the Soviet period of the Russian Empire), but still ruling over various Türkic, Caucasian, and Finno-Ugric peoples who were not fortunate enough to escape the empire in 1991; and China, ruling over Mongols, Türks, and Tibetans, among others, and, like Russia, a state that perpetuated its empire while officially holding “anti-imperialist” positions as a Leninist state. Many Arab states rule over recognized peoples, such as the Berbers, the Kurds, and the various African nations of (Khartoum-controlled) Sudan. Iran, formerly open about its imperial nature, still rules the same assembly of minorities.13

There have also been empires that lacked territorial organization. Perhaps the most important historically has been the rule of Brahmans and Ksatriyas in India, in which the power of these priestly and warrior-ruler castes was institutionalized through scripture, which the Brahmans would have written themselves. Burjor Avari denies that the caste system had a racial origin, though acknowledging that the Indo-Aryans would have been better represented in the upper castes, the non-Aryans in the lower castes, based on the social roles and skills each possessed as the system evolved. But in any case, since the Aryans (as distinct from other Indo-Europeans) did not remain outside of India, they ceased to be territorially distinct, even if they once were. What was left was hereditary membership in favored or disfavored populations within society. Tutsi rule in pre-colonial Rwanda and Burundi was apparently also a caste-based preference (the Tutsi as herders, the Hutu as farmers) in a society of a single culture.

Democratic empires consist of two sorts. In the first, readily identifiable, the imperial class is entitled to vote, and the subordinate class is not. The state as a whole is not democratic, then; it is not governed by a majority of its entire population. This describes the European colonial situation of recent centuries, as captured by Bill Freund, among others. And to the extent that ancient Rome and Athens were (patriarchal-)democratic, it describes the Roman Empire14 and the Delian League15 as well, as captured by Tom Jones.

The second variety of democratic empire involves states that are, as a whole, democratic, but which deny self-determination to a distinct group within the polity. This is done, as mentioned before, through a variety of mechanisms. The clearest is majority rule; the imperial class outnumbers the subordinate class and consistently votes to preserve “national unity”, that is, the continued existence of the political configuration favored by, and favoring, the imperial class. Constitutional provisions can also be in place that make self-determination difficult even in the absence of a consistent majority. Finally, the Westphalian system of recognition and franchise exclusivity can be used to discourage and even thwart self-determination quite effectively; lack of recognition can hinder trade and the receipt of foreign aid and foreign direct investment, making independence economically painful even when it can be achieved.

In this category, we can highlight a few cases. All of them depend on the numerical position of the imperial class to preserve dominance in a democratic state. Such is Spain, which has endeavored not to accommodate various minorities whose mild to strong preference is not to be ruled by the Castilians, whose state Spain essentially is. Such also, now, is Sri Lanka, which has recently conquered the state of Tamil Eelam, populated by a linguistically- and religiously-distinct nation (or subnation, since the Tamils have a much larger presence in the Indian Republic), subjected, in a former period of rule, to chauvinism and domination by the Sinhalese.16 Spain and Sri Lanka both have refused to recognize the independence of Kosovo; this is done largely in sympathy with Serbia’s imperial claims to Kosovo, and based on these states’ own imperial structure.

So also has (Greek) Cyprus, busy pressing its imperial claim to the Turkish-occupied north of the island, confident in its ability to control the north while still admitting it to a democratic republic. It is, however, not accurate to speak of (Greek) Cyprus as an empire with respect to (Turkish) Cyprus, any more than China with respect to Taiwan, or Somalia with respect to Somaliland (which is not to deny imperial intent). Northern Cyprus, Taiwan, and Somaliland are independent.17 Rather, the examples of Northern Cyprus, Taiwan, and Somaliland are used to discourage others, such as the Kurds in northern Iraq, from pursuing independence. Somaliland in particular stands as a warning, languishing in obscurity and poverty while holding mostly-free-and-fair elections and at a time when the Somali franchise has completely collapsed. So powerful is the Westphalian impulse that a sovereignty is being preserved when there is no effective government to claim it, held in trust, in effect, for a future claimant, however undeserving, while Somaliland is in present need.18


Yankee imperialisms of reality and imagination

The popular idea that the United States is an empire has two parts. The first is that the broad US influence in fields such as trade and popular culture amounts to imperial influence. This partially depends on fallacious inference; because past imperial powers also wielded broad influence in commerce and culture, any entity that wields such influence must be an empire as well. There is a particular group for whom, in the words of Niall Ferguson19,

such informal empire is just as powerful as the formal imperialism of occupying armies and administrators. In their view — and it is a view widely shared by the multifarious critics of ‘globalization’ — multinational (but mainly American) corporations, aided and abetted by apparently supranational (but mainly American) public institutions like the International Monetary Fund — exercise just as much power as the soldiers and civil servants who enforced the pax britannica. [p.xiii]
Marxists obsess about ‘imperialism’ as a capitalist phenomenon; but then they obsess about capitalism and economics in general. To others, ‘cultural imperialism’ is the special concern. John Tomlinson offers a level-headed examination of the term and its employ; in doing so, he remarks on the notion of cultural “sovereignty”, in which (in nearly perfect analogy with political “sovereignty”) cultures are entitled to govern themselves, and no outside culture is fit even to judge.20 A good example of the well-exercised and indignant, if not hysterical, employment of the term can be found in James Petras. Petras is proposing explicitly a project of the left; among the charges he lays at the feet of cultural imperialism is the attempt to undermine national identity, which, to put it mildly, the left has been keen to do itself at times.

The second part of the popular notion of an imperial US is more in keeping with historical empire, and emphasizes the United States’ tremendous military power, and the distribution and use of that power around the world. The military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, especially the latter, are seen as prime evidence of this. The fact that even the Bush administration showed a strong and sincere desire to be out of Afghanistan and Iraq is disregarded, perhaps by reference to the toll of repeated “insurgent” attacks on US troops (the implication being that if the US could have occupied Iraq and exploited its oil without troop loss, it would have done so indefinitely). The US also has bases throughout the world, and is effectively (like the British imperial navy before it) in charge of the world’s shipping lanes, guarantor of the world’s seaborne trade. In other words, the US has a ubiquitous military presence. It is also acknowledged as the world’s dominant military power; while a direct conflict with China or Russia might not be a walkover, US superiority over other governments, including all those hosting bases, is such that many of these are imagined as necessarily subservient to the US government.21

Both of these realities are better classified, following Agnew (2005), as hegemony.22 There is little compelling evidence that US cultural influence is the result of force, rather than a genuine interest in US popular culture. On economic influence the case that the US has ordered the world to its own design is much stronger; but in fact, the Washington Consensus is closer to a consensus than is often admitted. Classical liberalism predates the United States, the British promoted essentially the same economic order during the period of their ascendance, and other governments in the developed world will largely endorse this (grudgingly in some cases, enthusiastically in others), as will mainstream economists everywhere. For every Chávez, there are two or three Lula da Silvas, who have sympathies with labor and suspicions of the present system, but reject radicalism when actually in power, because responsible government demands that they do so. There is, in short, too much of will about Lula and his kind to suppose that their temperate behavior is the result of compulsion by the Imperio, as the narrative of Chávez would have it.

The quality of US military presence overseas is more complicated. This is in part because in talking about the military, we are approaching the classic empire. Conquest and occupation are certainly a part of the historical association with the concept. And to the extent that the United States military controls land in Iraq and Afghanistan, or shares control with other organizations (additional outside governments and the indigenous “governmental” organizations, convincingly named in the case of Iraq, debatably named in the case of Afghanistan), there is an imperial relationship. The people in any particular town or district who are, however briefly, under US control and thus government, do not have the same influence over that government as the citizens of the US. More explicitly, US citizens have ultimate control over that government, and the town or district residents have no control. Those charging US empire in Iraq and Afghanistan are right in details, then, though generally wrong in spirit: their view is that the US is occupying these lands to secure to itself their resources in perpetuity. The evidence for that is flimsy in Iraq, considering where many of the oil contracts have gone (to corporation-protégés of the states who opposed the US on the war); the evidence is of course absent in Afghanistan, which is devoid of resources the US has a particular interest in.23 And only the most conspiratorially-minded would see in US government policy a willingness to remain exposed to Qa‘idist and Ba‘thist attacks in perpetuity; presidents and members of Congress want above all to be reelected.

More important is the question of whether the United States proper constitutes an empire, or ever has. This, too, must be answered affirmatively. The US could certainly be viewed as imperial with respect to American Indians and blacks. In the former case, it was clearly a territorial empire, and it extends to the present day. There is some legal distinction and theoretical legal protection for what are still recognized as Indian lands, but no apparent freedom to secede; and the recognized Indian lands are just a fraction of original Indian territory. The United States and the other culturally-European powers whose territories it later acquired engaged in systematic conquest, colonization, ethnic cleansing, and massacre to secure control over the North American mainland. These were undeniably actions reminiscent of empire, though the key relationship for the present discussion of empire is the relationship of the US population with other populations, not land or resources.

Black Africans were enslaved in the South, and clearly the definition of general empire (democratic empire, in fact) is thereby met. Viewing Dixie as a territorial empire of whites over blacks is dependent on the territorial nature of black and white settlement, which is fairly complicated. Blacks were originally forcibly settled in the South, and had therefore no pre-existing connection to the land. They were, however, arguably territorially distinct, as the bulk of white Southerners would have lived in separate communities during slavery, and the presence of whites in small numbers on plantations where the black population lived is quite in accord with the usual colonial pattern.

When slavery ended, Jim Crow emerged, and, as Mary Frances Berry and Taylor Branch separately demonstrate, this process left blacks as second-class subjects (hardly citizens) in a general society and economy that was run by whites for the benefit of whites.24 Segregation persisted, and by now the black population was clearly territorial; so the South as a whole, then, remained the territorial democratic empire of whites over blacks until the civil rights reforms of forty years ago.

In ways, the United States can also be viewed as the present-day product of a Yankee conquest of Dixie. Whites in Dixie were largely involuntarily reincorporated into the United States, and during Reconstruction they were deprived of civic rights. There is a lingering sense of distinction among white Southerners that resembles a separate national identity; and though the white South is well noted for its abstract US patriotism, it is also a place where prominent politicians can make and survive overtly disloyal comments about, for example, assassinating the president (particularly a liberal president). Of course, whites in Dixie had begun with disproportionate power in the US, owing to the three-fifths rule, by which white Southerners’ votes were worth more in direct proportion to the number of slaves they owned. While involuntarily returned to the union, southern whites have successfully protected and promoted their power within the union, beyond merely Jim Crow; the Senate and the electoral college have enhanced Southern influence with respect to non-Southerners and even led to the election of several white Southerners as president, so the notion of white Southerners as a subordinate class, the persistent myth of Southern victimhood, is difficult to credit in the present day.

Territorial rule in the Philippines, resulting from war with Spain, was brief. Most other territories in the Pacific were acquired as a result of the defeat of Japan, and were apparently never considered as potential US colonies. Hawai‘i had a different history, and certainly represents a conquest and imperial incorporation, though the islands’ plurality now comprises immigrants from East Asia and their descendants. Aboriginal Hawai‘ians have US citizenship, but are outnumbered by other US citizens, and any future secession movement seems doomed to failure.

None of the Caribbean territories is clear in its implication. As with Cuba in former times, the US always exercises a dominant economic influence, and interventions (as in Haiti and Grenada) have taken place for various reasons. But US holdings in the Caribbean are few. The major example, in population terms, is Puerto Rico; and my own assessment of political will is that if the electorate of Puerto Rico ever voted decisively for either statehood or independence, this would be granted.25 The various low-population “commonwealths” and “territories” in the Caribbean and Pacific are self-governing under US federalism, which is fairly decentralized by world standards.

The sum of the US empire, then, amounts to two cases. First, it occupies parts of two foreign lands with significant populations and subjects them to direct rule by the US federal government. All indications are that these occupations are costly and unpopular and are not being prolonged with good cheer by the federal authorities. Second, it controls vast lands on the North American mainland, as well as Hawai‘i, which have no prospect of secession, and at least some of whose aboriginal and Hispanic26 inhabitants are descended from groups who were involuntarily incorporated as the US expanded westward. These, much more than Iraqis and Afghans, are the main subordinate class in a US empire. Their numbers are few, though, from deliberate (indeed, genocidal) policies of former times, and from assimilation; from a world perspective, then, the US empire lies primarily in past actions, as compared to many states in the world with sizable current subordinate classes.


The hidden empire of hù kǒu

China as an empire is rather obvious. It has generally been an empire of Hàn over various traditional peoples (Koreans, Vietnamese), has occasionally been an empire of other peoples over Hàn (Jurchen, Mongols, Manchus), and is currently an empire of Hàn over some of the same peoples (Mongols, Türks, Tibetans, Koreans). More surprising is the hidden empire created by the hù kǒu system of modern China. The hù kǒu system is often recognized as unjust; it is not, however, recognized as imperial. And yet it meets with the definition of general empire, and largely of territorial empire as well.

The hù kǒu system establishes household registration for all citizens of the People’s Republic; of primary interest here is the division of hù kǒu into two categories, commonly described as ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, clarified by Kam Wing Chan as ‘non-agricultural’ and ‘agricultural’, but perhaps better described as ‘metropolitan’ and ‘peasant’.27 In Chan’s words, there are “in essence two “peoples” in China” [p214]. The territorial aspect of hù kǒu is fairly clear. The original hù kǒu as instituted in 1958 was based largely on where individuals were living at the time. A map of hù kǒu might not be simple, but the geography largely is; those in settlements of a certain size were metropolitan, others were peasants. Hù kǒu is largely inherited (from the mother, where a conflict exists28), so an individual has the same expectation of rights and responsibilities, benefits and burdens, as previous generations. There is an important exception: all party and state officials are classified as metropolitans. Other exceptions, such as for education, exist, but these examples of changes strongly indicate the valuation: metropolitan hù kǒu is offered as a reward (or even, for the very wealthy, purchased29), and taken away as a punishment, including as a criminal penalty.

Hù kǒu has gone through two phases, demarcated by the economic reforms of the late 1970s, when Dèng Xiǎo Píng assumed power and instituted broadly-pro-market policies. In the first stage, according to Chan, peasants were confined to the countryside. Metropolitans were provided with some degree of social support and subsidies, including and particularly subsidized food. The peasantry was expected to feed and otherwise take care of itself, and the countryside was seen as well as a source of raw materials for metropolitan industries. The economy was centrally planned, and industrialization was a priority, so the fifteen percent of the population who were metropolitan, and their industries, benefitted from a forced transfer of value from countryside to city. Industrialization was more successful precisely because it was not constrained to acquire its resources at market prices; metropolitan industries had a ready source of cheap resources that were extracted by force of the state from rural areas and the populations confined to those areas.

The reforms of the Dèng era, as Peter Alexander and Anita Chan detail, left the social-welfare system (and its metropolitan-peasant disparities) in place, but it did remove the absolute restriction on peasant migration. It allowed, in fact, peasants to relocate to cities to engage in metropolitan industries. The peasants who did so were not, though, entitled to metropolitan benefits. This meant that they were still required to pay their own way as far as basic living needs. Because education and health care were not provided for their families, those were left behind, placing additional burdens of care on peasant families, or brought to the cities, requiring private services whose provision (as related by Julia Kwong) was often subject to serious harassment by municipal authorities.

Far more importantly, peasants working in the cities were personally at the mercy of the state and their employers, and this opened migrant peasants up to serious corruption and abuse. Exorbitant application fees (up to two months’ wages) were required for the paperwork. Lacking the necessary paperwork could subject the peasant to detention in prison-like conditions. This prompted many employers to confiscate workers’ documents, requiring the workers to stay with the employer even as work conditions deteriorated, including the routinized withholding of pay. Employers also often charged a large deposit to secure a job, subject to forfeiture, leaving workers indentured. And peasants were also frequently subject to preemptive and gratuitous harassment and detention.

The end result was a situation in which peasants working in cities were held in a dramatically-inferior state vis-à-vis metropolitan workers; while metropolitans, too, were deprived of basic human rights as identified in liberal democracies, the situation for peasants was much worse. The system as it evolved in the reform era was a major contributor to China’s industrial success30; peasants provided a cheap labor pool that could be exploited mercilessly, was entitled to little if any state support, and could be “sent down” to the countryside at will; the tap of labor could be turned on and off with no consequences to employers or the state.31 The system has been modified somewhat — the police, for instance, are no longer responsible for hù kǒu enforcement — but much of the system remains in place.

Alexander and Chan compare the hù kǒu system to apartheid in South Africa, and this is apt.32 Even more to the point, though, is the comparison between the results of the hù kǒu system, and colonization in Africa as a whole (consider Freund’s narrative, for example). The limitation of peasant rights, both material and civil, the exploitation of peasants for food, resources, and cheap labor, and the widespread abuse of peasants by officials provide a clear parallel with European colonization. What the Chinese government was doing, on behalf of the metropolitan class to which its membership all belonged33, was colonizing and exploiting the countryside, draining its resources, keeping its peasant population in a state of perpetual servitude, and, when it brought the peasants to work in the metropole (scattered throughout Chinese territory but concentrated on the east coast), segregating and abusing them while their labor was mined for the benefit of companies and the state. Not only, then, can the notion of imperial and subordinate classes shed light on similarities of structure between states that appear as empires of traditional peoples and those that do not; it can also shed light on similarities of effect. The corruption and abuse surrounding the hù kǒu in China is a predictable result of the second-class citizenship — or perhaps more accurately non-citizenship — of the Chinese peasant.



When used carefully, rather than provocatively, ‘empire’ describes a fairly-constant historical phenomenon, of a state stratified according to rights and benefits, in which the upper stratum can be said to rule the lower. In traditional empires, the upper and lower strata are traditional peoples. But without a definition, ‘people’ is not a robust category; it is simply the nomination of particular historians — the Franks are a people, the Catholics are not, the Pakistanis are a people, the Shiites are not. Since historical peoples are not determined by any single attribute of humanity, such as language or lineage, failure to create an inclusive definition masks the imperial nature of many states, sparing them the scholarly analysis (and the normative condemnation) given to other, more-obviously-imperial states. The cultural-relativist position that the United States is an empire is accurate only in the way that a broken clock is accurate twice a day. The United States has been and is an empire, but only because it has and continues to deny the full benefits of US and global citizenship to some of its subjects. The hù kǒu system in China is also an empire; categorizing the system as an injustice among fellow citizens is rather to miss its import, and its kinship to other systems. It is true that, by the definition I have presented here, empire is all around us. That is part of the point. We can make such a statement coolly, without resort to polemical fireworks, and, if we choose to take a moral stand, do so from a position of reason, not empty rhetoric.


1. It is only difficult, not impossible; and some, such as Niall Ferguson and Deepak Lal, have provocatively defended empire. Such defenses are made all the more marketable by the general negative connotation; the audacity of the defense brings some grudging admiration and, thus, valuable attention. Ferguson and Lal both seem to have a fanciful notion of the goods that empire provides, based on selective examples of the process; the security of person and property at the heart of Lal’s case is hardly a consistent feature of empire in general. As a result, each should be seen as defending a particular kind of empire, specifically an idealized British Empire as a model for a new US empire.

2. Even the all-powerful and dreaded government in ‘Star wars’ is always “the Empire”.

3. The lack of article may have value in evoking a reality of place, in much the same way as ‘America’ is often preferred by US citizens to ‘the United States’; ‘America’ sounds like a real place, a natural and traditional country or nation, whereas ‘the United States’ sounds like the created and strictly-political entity that it genuinely began as. On the other hand, Hardt and Negri may well wish to avoid the notion that Empire is a place.

4. When the subject is the failings (if not the evils) of the United States, the coalition is very much so — the semi-self-loathing of leftist intellectuals in the US, and the aloof disdain of a broad representation of European thought leadership (which is presented as popular “European” opinion, and sometimes is).

5. This section relates briefly the general political arguments that appear in final form in my dissertation chapter ‘The political world’ (2013), but considerably revises and extends the discussion of territoriality from the prior version (2009), which is why territoriality receives apparently-undue emphasis here.

6. The term ‘sovereignty’ is problematic to the extreme, such that it is far best left alone. It has a basic meaning of “right to rule”, and a similar meaning of “ultimate authority”, which in a modern sense is interpreted territorially. But it is the object of linguistic abuse by the Westphalian system and by its opponents, and in such contexts should always be treated with skepticism. Any appearance in scholarly literature should always prompt an immediate demand for a definition.

7. Sadly, even ‘control’ has fallen victim to the empirical-juridical distortion, as in Jeffrey Herbst: “Europeans did not manage to exercise formal authority for decades after technically gaining control of the territory.” [p78]

8. A better term would have been ‘pseudo-states’, since his point is that the “states” in question lack the necessary empirical attributes of statehood.

9. This situation will later be considered further to illuminate the question of whether the United States is an empire.

10. This paragraph, and the next four, were later used in my dissertation (2013).

11. The labels I have chosen for the classes mirror Doyle’s almost exactly, though I was not initially aware of Doyle’s work. His distinction between formal and informal control confuses the issue, as does his discussion of sovereignty, but in the end his “effective control” seems to accord with the sense I am intending here. His use of ‘society’ requires further elaboration; based on his examples, which all fall into the category of traditional peoples, he is avoiding the inclusive definition that I am suggesting.

12. ‘Patriarchy’ might be seen as similarly of little value; the same defenses apply.

13. Iran and some of the Arab states could as well be classed as empires of religion, specifically sect, with Shiite rule in the former and Sunni rule in the latter.

14. ‘Empire’ is from the Latin ‘IMPERIVM’, though Jones traces the concept to the Etruscans. What we call the Republic was indeed an empire, while what we call the Empire was to the Romans a principate. Latin terminology is no guide to present English usage, though, which is actually at issue here.

15. Jones notes a symbiosis between Athenian democracy and empire. The navy at the heart of the League was powered by the masses (unlike the upper- and middle-class army), who bargained for more power within Athenian political structures; the net income provided by the empire supported the development of domestic liberalism, particularly by allowing for paid public service, so that decisionmakers were no longer drawn exclusively from the wealthy, who were largely anti-democratic.

16. None of this is to express sympathy with the Tamil Tigers, rulers of the vanished Tamil state. They were particularly ruthless and unsavory. A democratic Tamil Eelam, on the other hand, would be favored by many if not most Ceylon Tamils over their current position in the Sinhalese state of Sri Lanka.

17. This represents my own judgement with respect to Northern Cyprus. A case could be made and frequently is that Northern Cyprus is controlled by Turkey. The case is compelling, but not quite convincing.

18. The Turkish population of Northern Cyprus voted for a reasonable (in my opinion) federal solution to a single state of Cyprus. The Greek population of the south voted against this, with the knowledge that, in doing so, it alone would be admitted to the European Union, and provided with a veto on union actions, the better to ensure a future deal strongly favoring the Greeks in a Cypriot state. I would not hesitate to call this imperial intent. It should be remembered that the Turkish occupation was prompted by a military coup among the Greeks, aimed at union with mainland Greece, also at the time a military régime.

19. Ferguson specifically says “Anarcho-Marxists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri”. Quite probably he means Hardt and Negri directly. He is surely not misrepresenting their views, but he is somewhat misrepresenting their “Empire”. Ferguson’s words are quoted here as a summary of a broader position.

20. Tomlinson illustrates the ironies of this discourse through a discussion of UESCO, which is institutionally bound to treat member-states as autonomous “national” cultures.

21. How exactly so many of these “client” states came to oppose the US on the Iraq War is never quite explained.

22. Doyle, tracing the usage to Thucydides, states: “Control of both foreign and domestic policy characterizes empire; control of only foreign policy, hegemony.” [p40] Thucydides cannot be responsible for this distinction in English, though, and Doyle has identified a clear rule that in my judgement does not exist.

23. A case could certainly be made that the US is in Afghanistan as a part of the War on Drugs, but not a persuasive one. It would require that the United States seized on September 11 as an excuse to eliminate the poppy supply in Afghanistan, regardless of the cost of this action.

24. Berry makes clear that northern whites were more than complicit in the success of Jim Crow. It was southern whites, however, who ruled and who benefitted, and she describes, in fact, the cooptation of poor southern whites into the pan-white cause, against any possibility of class solidarity.

25. That is not to say that arguments would not be raised in Washington against either possibility. Against statehood would be the linguistic distinctiveness of Puerto Rico, and against independence would be the precedent this might be seen to establish for other lands, particularly Indian lands (which, however, have a legal status that is quite different from Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” status). It is only my estimation that such arguments would not achieve majority support.

26. This refers only to those living in parts of the present United States when they were parts, instead, of México or Spain, and their descendants, not to those who immigrated from Latin America to US territory.

27. There is also, as Chan notes, a direct locational distinction in registration, namely ‘local’ versus ‘non-local’. But this plays a less important role overall in segregating and disadvantaging an element of the population; the desirable and difficult hù kǒu move is from peasant to metropolitan. Fei-ling Wang discusses in depth the use of the registration and its accompanying paperwork and computer records to monitor the populace, but this is a police-state function in which every subject of the PRC is equal.

28. According to Wang, this was altered in 1998, allowing for the inheritance of a father’s registration.

29. This is mostly hypothetical. According to Wang, acquiring metropolitan hù kǒu through purchase involves tremendous sums, such as the requirement in Běi Jīng of purchasing a high-end apartment at thirty times the average annual salary.

30. Kam Wing Chan notes that peasant migrant labor is up to 80% of the workforce in export-driven coastal cities, and contributed about 30% of GDP for Běi Jīng and Shàng Hǎi in 2007. Roughly 10% of China’s entire population is peasant migrant labor.

31. Peasant unrest is a potential and sometimes actual problem, to be sure, but China’s status as a police state, and the legally-inferior position of peasants to begin with, does much to contain this.

32. That apartheid was an imperial relationship may well require no elaboration.

33. Many cadres, particularly in the early Máoist period, came from a peasant background. But by rule, all of them possessed metropolitan hù kǒu, and though Máo himself may have been anti-urban, the exigencies of the rapid-industrialization policy created metropolitan privilege, whatever the intention or reasoning. Of course, China is not democratic even for metropolitans, so the exclusion of the peasantry from the government means less than it might otherwise.


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