the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
At its most basic, an empire is a state in which one nation, or group of people, rules over one or more other nations. An empire has traditionally been the result of conquest by one nation of one or more other nations. Typically the conquering and conquered nations have resided in different areas, such that the conquest involves an expansion of the state’s territory. The Russian Empire is an example of such a state. The dominant nation, the Great Russians, whose heartland was around Moscow, ended up ruling numerous other nations along the Baltic and Black Seas, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia; much of that empire remains under Great Russian control.
But a better way to think of an empire is in terms of its internal structure, regardless of how it came about. First, consider a population as a group of people that contains all ages and both reproductive sexes, such that the population can reproduce naturally and have continuity over multiple generations. An empire, then, is a state divided into two identifiable populations, an imperial population and a sub-imperial population, with the government and the governing class drawn from the imperial population, and benefits, burdens, and rules favoring the imperial population over the sub-imperial population.
A territorial empire is a state in which the imperial population and the sub-imperial population are territorially distinct — associated with different specific territories.
The imperial population may, but need not, be identical to the citizenry. Where the two are not identical, the citizenry is a subset of the imperial population. All states can be expected to host a class of non-citizens. This is not inherently unjust; as long as there are multiple states in the world, a state should be welcoming of visitors, and we cannot expect a state to grant visitors full political participation automatically. And yet we do expect those visitors to be subject to the laws of the state (and to receive many of its protections). The imperial relationship arises when there is a permanent resident population without the citizenship of another state, reproducing within the territory of the state and subject to its laws while being consigned to subordination.
The requirement of populations distinguishes an empire from, for example, a full-fledged patriarchy, in which women are not allowed to participate in governance, because a population cannot consist entirely of men or women.
In the United States, the conquest of the aboriginal Americans fits the traditional understanding of empire; Europeans swept in from the east, gradually taking control of land and subjugating the peoples who lived there. But for much of US history, the relationship between the white and black populations, especially in the South, was indistinguishable from a traditional empire in its effects, even if it did not involve territorial conquest. A visitor to the Jim Crow South, unaware of the history, could reasonably have guessed that the black population had always lived in the South and was conquered by whites, who stayed on as colonial masters. Given that the term ‘empire’ has traditionally applied not to the act of conquest but to the resulting state, and that there is no important functional difference between the Great Russian – Kazakh relationship in the Russian Empire, and the white-black relationship in the Jim Crow South, it makes sense to treat both states the same.
The imperial and sub-imperial populations are frequently nations of the common types; importantly, though, they needn’t be. The urban and non-urban hukou populations in the People’s Republic of China at the height of the hukou system were imperial and sub-imperial populations, respectively.
The extension of the term ‘empire’ to instances that do not involve political control is an attempt to capture the modern disgust with empire for a lesser offense. So-called imperialisms of economics and culture, typically attributed to the West and especially the United States, bear only a vague resemblance to actual imperialism of political control. These supposed imperialisms lack any central authority; instead, the influence is simply the cumulative effect of numerous individuals and organizations — companies, entrepreneurs, and investors, in the case of economic “imperialism”, writers, musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers, in the case of cultural “imperialism”. These individuals and organizations have no unified agenda; indeed, in the case of culture, much of it is driven by those who are disinclined to promote the interests of their home states.
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