Twenty-Five Theses on Empire
June 23, 2020

1. All political power is ambivalent. Vertical violence of “the state” tends to limit horizontal and contested power between people and between tribes. “The State” brings new oppression, but also a measure of new peace and unity.

2.  All political formations are ambiguous like this: a strong family conquers weaker ones to make a tribe; strong tribes conquer weaker ones to make a kingdom. Then strong kingdoms conquer weaker ones to constitute empires.

3. Not only is this vertical violence nonetheless the vehicle of a certain definite, if not fully real peace (to evoke Augustine), it has also been linked to the quest for universal truth in the cases of China, India, Greece and Rome.

4. Thus the history of civilisations is mainly the history of empires.

5. Nation states are not necessarily more virtuous than empires. They too are the result of conquest. And by monopolising sovereignty in the center and focusing on ethnic identity, they are less subsidiarist and less pluralistic.

6. The best example is the Holy Roman Empire compared with the Prussian State that later in effect conquered Germany to re-create it as a Nation State. German militarism and racism were to do with expansive nationalism and not classic imperialism, contra Yoram Hazony.

7. As to European overseas empires, in order to assess their instance, one surely needs to do a counter-factual thought experiment. Could they not have happened?  The answer is surely no. Why?

8. For them not to have happened this would have needed at least the sense that tribal cultures are often as equally sophisticated as “civilized” ones. But no civilisation realised this before 20th-century ethnography came to such a correct conclusion. The consequent non-comprehension of tribal political and economic arrangements meant that there was a tragic as well as ethically culpable factor at work in the destruction of indigenous ways of life.

9. Supposing early modern Europeans had per impossibile come to see the equal validity of tribes (and even Bartolomé de Las Casas did not quite get there), those tribes would have had to be protected from all the privateering freebooters and marauding traders by the political powers. That would have involved some mode of “empire.”

10. Indeed, to a considerable extent, alongside appalling use of it, this kind of reining-back of private exploitation, or “gentlemanly” semi-inhibition of capitalism, was part of the (very complex, various and contradictory) process by which the overseas empires were formed.

11. At the very outset, the European overseas empires emerged somewhat by accident from the need for States to respond to the often exploitative activities of private venturers, even though States themselves often afterwards licensed a more systematic exploitation.  Then throughout their subsequent history these empires involved the frequently conflicting, as well as merging interests of capitalists, missionaries, scientific explorers and colonial settlers, and of all of these with the geopolitical ambitions of the mother-countries.

12. Although too often disgracefully exploitative towards original inhabitants (in ways that were pointed out by domestic critics almost from the outset), empires also sometimes liberated them from local tyranny.  These inhabitants were also frequently active participants in, and collaborators with empire, without which it could not have been sustained. Much of the comparative economic disadvantage of colonised territories would have existed anyway; although more usually exacerbated by empire, sometimes imperial regulation served to mollify it.

13. Thus too much of the “apologise for empire” movement gravitates towards being a movement which effectively thinks that “the past should not have happened,” under the illusion that everywhere and at all times human beings could have naturally seen the pure truth. That academics, especially, should encourage this illusion is frightening, because it originates from a lack of real education and understanding.

14. Surely even Rousseau did not quite think like this? Ethical insight builds only slowly and is a constant story of regression and uncertainty as well as progress. We build on what our ancestors got right and we also forget some of what they got right.

15.  These things are as true as the admitted need constantly to reject what we think our ancestors got wrong. But to imagine that we now have automatic natural and ahistorical insight into what is right is to fall into the same illusion that they so often fell into.

16. Instead, we need to recover the sense that dialectical debate which takes time and is never fully resolved goes along with the historical process. Our actions are also a constant debate and search for the truth; our debates are linked to the limited perspectives of our actions.

17. I mean dialectics in the Platonic sense. But despite their deluded logicist belief in the automatic power of the negative (in contrast to Plato), Hegel and Marx were right to link dialectics and history. It’s partly why Marx did not simplistically condemn empire.

18. Thus the woke left is very far from being an Hegelian or a Marxist, much less a Nietzschean or Foucauldian (still more historicist) left. It is merely an ultra-liberal left. And it is mostly not really socialist.

19. In case some Catholics think I am being too relativist here, it is clear that for Aquinas the natural law or participation in the eternal law is always imperfectly mediated by historically situated law of nations and civil law. See my Church Life Journal articles (here, here, and here).

20. For Aquinas, unlike Suarez and his successors, a common “law of the nations,” or shared international legal culture had priority over the civil law of nations as the mediator of natural law. Without some sort of international government one has simply an “international anarchy” between nation states, which can then, at best, like isolated liberal individuals, enter into mutually self-interested contracts with each other – with no necessary regard for justice.

21. By contrast, a communitarian international order, based upon a shared cultural sense of natural justice, requires some sort of institutional embodiment. Not “super-states,” but federated commonwealths that to a degree pool their sovereignty.

22. Today we need such “commonwealths” and not empires. Yet in reality (as for example with the EU) there have to be centers of such organic unity if it is to hold together, and relatively stronger nations will need to take on more of the role of responsible enforcement. In this sense an “imperial” factor can never be wished away from any international order that is not either anarchic or merely utopian (the EU is again an example here).

23. Overseas empires have too often been the instruments of appalling exploitation and persecution. Yet they were also sometimes the means for the enforcement of international justice. Thus the British empire was partly enabled by the slave trade, yet it was also the means for the global ending of this trade – an unprecedented event in human history.

24. Ultimately, too much of the current “decolonizing” ideology covertly tracks back to the founding liberal myth of the United States which was about the rejection of an imperial master. Yet from the outset this was deployed in part as a mask for genocide and racism and for the expansion of a specifically Republican mode of empire, more committed to establishing an “American” mode of uniformity, in comparison with the greater cultural pluralism of the European overseas empires.

25. Today, “post-colonial” thought is similarly too collusive with continued and sometimes ever more terrible modes of economic imperialism by virtue of not sufficiently confronting its reality, preferring instead to focus upon symbolic cultural targets and gestures. But this current imperialism has often contributed decisively to the total dysfunctionality of many states that are thereby no longer able to recover just on their own. Their future rescue and the advancement of their peoples depends, in part, upon a better-directed assistance on the part of wealthier nations and on these states being brought within the kind of federated commonwealth logic already described. We need, for example, stronger pan-Latin American and African groupings, and these need to be systematically linked to European and North American cross-border federations. The British Commonwealth and Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie can play important mediating roles here.

John Milbank is Emeritus Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at The University of Nottingham. 

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