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Monday, November 21, 2005

Arcana Imperii

In the early 80s, a popular Scottish historian, Angus Calder, published a marvelous book about the foundation of the British Empire : Revolutionary Empire. What made this book different from the usual procession of imperial icons that storyboard the empire as a series of adventures was Calder's total grasp of the ebbs and flows of the imperial world. For Calder, the colonial models have to be seen in terms of their first instantiation in the British isles themselves –in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Raleigh, for instance, not only founded the first, shortlived colony on the Eastern seaboard, but he was also planning on colonizing Ireland. He drew up a frankly genocidal plan for getting rid of the Irish, which, while not unleashed (at least in that form) upon the Irish, certainly was unleashed, later, on the Iroquois, the Cherokee, the Algonquin, etc. Calder's point is that imperialism and the history of England, and by extension the Western countries, is not such that one can segregate the forces at work in the colony from those at work in the mother country. Instead, there was a constant exchange of models between the periphery and the center – the periphery being forged in the center, and vice versa. The experience of the "factory" in Jamaica -- the way in which sugar cane was cultivated, harvested and milled by slaves -- was imported to the factory models in England. The clearing of the Highlands, that fight against a tenacious, clan based mountain people, preludes struggles in India. In my rather floundering posts on the modern construction of liberalism and conservatism, I’ve been calling this the imperial effect.

As I said in those posts, the devaluation of the imperial effect as a driver of politics in the modern West is motivated. The motivation stems from the heart of the cold war controversies over both communism and the adoption of Keynesian economics, which had provoked a rearguard battle associated with conservative economists like Hayek, Friedman and Mises. Put this way, we are talking about a standard Heideggerian trope: forgetting as a social act. Heidegger writes about the forgetting of being, by which he means.. well, I’m not going to go into everything he means, which would get me way off track. My interest is really in the model itself.

Thinking about these matters, LI was pleased to stumble over an article in this Winter’s History and Theory by Anthony Pagden (FELLOW CITIZENS AND IMPERIAL SUBJECTS:
CONQUEST AND SOVEREIGNTY IN EUROPE’S OVERSEAS EMPIRES) that relates asymptotically, so to speak, to our own view.

Pagden wants to make a claim about a shift in the conception of empire that occurred between 1776 and 1830:

“I would like to suggest that the theoretical history of the modern European overseas empires (which excludes the Carolingian, the Holy Roman, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian empires as well as such short-lived imperial projects as the Third Reich, the USSR, Mussolini’s Abyssinian empire, or, the “empire” of the United States) can be divided into two distinct phases. There has long been a disputed division between Europe’s “first” empires—mainly those in the Americas, which all came to an end between 1776 and 1830, and the “second” empires, which began in the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century and continued until the middle of the twentieth.4 Against any such neat periodization, it has been pointed out that the British incursions into Asia and Africa had already begun by the early seventeenth century; that although Spain had lost most of her American possessions by 1830, she retained the Philippines and still clings to outposts of the north-African coast; that as soon as the Treaty of Paris of 1763
had stripped France of most of her possessions in America and India, she began searching for new opportunities, first in the Pacific and then in north Africa. It seems obvious that there was indeed a continuous imperial, expansionist ambition shared by all the major European powers during the whole period from the mid-fifteenth century until the late-nineteenth century. My claim that the early empires in America were significantly different from the empires that overlapped and finally succeeded them is based not on organization, social type, objectives, or economic performance. It is based, instead, on the central conception of sovereignty.

For one thing that all empires, no matter how distinct they may be in size or type—and there is a bewildering variety—share is that they involve the exercise of a sovereign authority that has usually been acquired, at least in the first instance, by force. Since the occupation of lands to which the occupier could make no prior claim on grounds of autochthony, spurious or no, necessarily involved some kind of violation, empires were inescapably lands of conquest. Moreover, in view of the fact that most European peoples did generally hold that that domination is—or at least should be—a spontaneous expression of the nature of society, conquest presented a considerable challenge to most notions of sovereign authority.”

Pagden’s thesis is consistent with the anomaly of empire that bedeviled the early Victorians. If I am broadly right about the imperial effect, Pagden’s framework would have to accommodate a series of changes within the central European states themselves – changes wrought, in England, by the successive revolutions of the seventeenth century, and in France, by changes that began, as Tocqueville noted, under the Ancien regime and accelerated dramatically under the Revolution. These changes in the system of “acquired property” did have the effect of calling into question sovereignty, using the elements that Pagden highlights – geographic region and population. It is my guess that the imperial effect on the breakup of the brief classical liberal hegemony was such that it created a new division of political modes that, in a sense, drew their lesson from the government of the periphery to the government of the center. On the conservative side, the lesson was one of combining a government of moral coercion with one that incited the transformation of property into acquirable property – a process that still goes on, in, for instance, the privatization of public goods (like ideas, texts, mechanical processes, etc. – all of the IP stuff). On the liberal side, the lesson was of the success of central planning.

The anxiety underneath these lessons remained has long co-existed with imperial power. In fact, in Pagden’s first period, he traces a legal pattern that preludes the manner in which the legitimacy of empire was reformulated in his second period:

“By the early seventeenth century most European governments had resolved the problem by the simple expedient of denying its existence. The French hardly ever employed the term “conquest” in Canada. The Dutch, although happy to speak of conquest when the conquerors in question were the Spanish or the Portuguese, avoided the term when describing their own activities in Asia and America; the English, despite the fact that all their colonies in America were legally held to be “lands of conquest” and had been so ever since Henry VII’s letters patent to John Cabot of 1496, tended to agree with John Locke’s condemnation of conquest as “far from setting up any government, as demolishing an House is from building a new one in the place.”10 “The Sea,” declared the Scottish political theorist and soldier of fortune Andrew Fletcher in 1698, “is the only Empire which can naturally belong to us. Conquest is not our Interest.”11 Even the Spanish, whose American empire was so obviously based on conquest, and who boasted a rich imaginative literature to prove it, banned all official use of the word in 1680.”

Reminiscent of the recent career of the term “occupation,” no?

Anyway, readers are urged to flock to Theory and History and check out Pagden’s provocative, and even brilliant, essay. The passages on Henry Maine are themselves worth the trifling price of a little effort. Maine wrestled with the legal status of principalities in India that had the power to tax and judge, but were denied any power to make foreign policy. And he concluded that liberal ideas of dominion had to cede to a new idea of dominion, or sovereignty. Maine’s discussion could be about Iraq at the present moment. Pagden places Maine’s discussion in conjunction with Burke’s tortured notion of the legitimacy of the British project in India and concludes:

This [position of subservient sovereign states] had been precisely Burke’s complaint, since in the context in which sovereignty was divided between conqueror and conquered the outcome could only be what Maine himself recognized as “the virtually despotic government of a dependency by a free people.”

The virtually despotic government of a dependency by a free people. Hmm, sounds like the D.C. plan for Iraq.

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