Traditionally, there are those who are for empire, and those who are against it. Also there are those who distinguish good empires (the Athenian empire, the French “mission civilisatrice”; English Commonwealth) from the disgusting ones (say UK’s anti-Boer South Africa), to the very bad ones (plutocrat Leopold II’s Heart of Darkness Congo), or the outright demonic ones (the Kaiser’s holocaustic Namibia).
However, Manicheism goes only that far. I am going to suggest a completely different form of analysis, and approach, to the concept of empire.
An empire has subjects, just as a predator has preys. This is the conventional view. And, yet, it contains its own overcoming. Indeed, just as there is a mathematical entanglement between predator and prey, there is a philosophical entanglement between an empire and its subjects.
Good Empires Rest On Holy Wisdom; Ἁγία Σοφία, Constantinopolis
“Imperium” depicted initially the absolute, life-and-death ordering capability from top Roman generals. (Roman “emperors” inherited that capability, as they were always the commanders in chief, at least on paper.)
To this day, an empire is supposed to be all about a few ordering the many (thus, intrinsically “fascist”). Yet, even this Roman military root is endowed with subtlety: imperium does not reduce to fascism.
Why? The semiotics of fascism is, fundamentally, not just about the many being strong by tying up together. It’s about the law, and the law is absolute: Dura Lex, Sed Lex (Law Hard, But Law). So the many are tied by an absolute.
Roman generals were obeyed absolutely, only when they inspired an aura of absolutism, that only vertiginous respect could confer them.
A professional special force killer was sent to assassinate Marius (seven times Consul, who triumphed in Africa over Jugurtha, and Gaul, Piedmont over invading Germans). He found the elder Marius in a room. Marius, unafraid, addressed the would be-assassin with his stentorian voice: ”Soldier, are you going to kill your general?”. Trembling, excusing himself, the assassin fled, and Marius’ enemies gave up on the notion of killing their all too respected foe.
In other words, imperium worked best when the soldiers loved their generals. After all, soldiers were armed to the teeth, trained to kill, and not to fear death. Generals need to be loved, the law does not. So imperium is an intrinsically milder notion than fascism.
Thus it’s not enough to say there are good empires, and bad ones. More generally, there are good empire-subject entanglements, and bad, unjust ones. It’s not all about just about the empire, it’s also about the subjects, and it’s also about the interactions of the one, with the others. Moreover those entanglements can be asymmetric.
Let me give an example. The Roman empire was the ultimate empire. Arguably, it’s going on, stronger than ever, 27 centuries after its founding (long story). For at least a millennium, the Romans interacted with the Celts, Jews, Egyptians, Greeks and Mesopotamians.
It was the same Roman empire, however, the outcomes were very different, and drastic differences are reflected to this day: the West became Rome, and Mesopotamia is still wrecked by war without end. By far the most complex interaction was with the Celto-Germans. It was pretty much antipodal to what happened with the Jews and the Mesopotamians, and, one can even claim, with the Greeks.
In Mesopotamia, and against the Iranians, Rome and its successor regime (“Constantinople”) struggled in vain for seven centuries. Nothing came out of it, except so much morbidity that, in the end, the Arabs overwhelmed both Persia and most of Rome.
The Jews, or rather, domineering Jewish fanatics, who made no sense whatsoever, in two formidably suicidal wars, rejected Rome. The first of these killed a million Jews, much of the population of Israel, then. It started by the cold blooded killing, inside Jerusalem, of 600 legionnaires of the Roman garrison. The strategic objective was unclear, and soon at least three Jewish factions were fighting each other, to death besides engaging the Romans.
The Romans had a sense of humor, and catapulted thousands of pig heads inside Jerusalem (I presume that they let them rot carefully first). On the less amusing side, the legions devastated forests throughout the region to build gigantic works for the siege of the holy city.
Egypt did not care about Rome one way or another. That mood of pragmatic indifference was contagious: while the titanic struggle of the Judaic War unfolded, just over the horizon, the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Alexandria did not raise the smallest protest.
Greece had been severely mistreated by the plutocratic Roman Senate, by 146 CE: Corinth was destroyed as a warning that republican independence of Greek City-States will not be tolerated. That was mass terrorism, and it marked Greece for centuries to come, as intended. Greek democracy did not recover, until the EU chased out the pro-Washington dictatorship, 21 centuries later.
And then there were the Celts and the Germans. Those were not united, they relished their complicated world. They had adopted many traits of Greek civilization, even before the Romans showed up. Their metallurgy was second to none, and a major export to Rome. Ultimately, after 16 centuries of tragi-comedy, and all sorts of happenstance, the Celto-Germans became Rome (officially, in 800 CE).
It’s actually a curious thing: after a terrible war when Caesar intervened (Caesar was accused by some in the Senate and some historians, to have caused much of the problem), nothing anti-Roman ever happened again in Gallia. Even when the so called Gallic Empire ruled, later, it was not to reject Rome, but to improve it.
Differently from what had happened in Greece, the Romans did not rule Gaul through terror (although the war with Caesar had killed and enslaved millions, it had been a very complicated, messy affair, nothing like the cold blooded holocaust at Corinth) . Far from it. Even Latin was not imposed. In the Fifth Century the bishop of Lugdunum (= Lyon) preached in Celtic. Latin replaced Celtic completely, well after the legions were gone (that happened in 400 CE, a decision of Rome, taken when, for budgetary reasons, Rome put the Franks in charge of defending the two Germania and Gallia). Phasing out the three Celtic languages happened when the Franks, who came to rule Gaul completely in the early Sixth Century, completely gave up their own Low Countries German for Latin.
The Celto-Germano-Greco-Roman civilization became a symbiosis ruled by the Franks. Why a community of minds there, and not with Israel, or Mesopotamia? It’s obviously an explanation that involves many factors. The Celto-Germans and the Greco-Romans had a very long story, with fair intellectual trade, in both directions: by the time Caesar showed up, that intense trade was at least a millennium old. The Roman army was equipped with Celtic metal works for centuries.
Celts and Romans had important principles in common, like a quasi-religious dislike for kings, and, certainly, hatred of tyranny. This dislike was so strong that Armanius (Hermann) a once-Roman officer who treacherously annihilated Roman general Varus and his three legions (plus supporting troops, and fellow travellers), was later killed by fellow rebels for behaving, it was alleged, like a king.
Yet, as Rome became a fascist dictatorship, the Germans became more sympathetic to fascism, and kingship. Clovis, elected king of the Franks, his father, Roman imperator Childeric I, and his grandfather Merovius. Thus, Western Europe (or, at least, the elements if Western Europe which came to re-establish an empire) was pretty much evolving as one mental unit.
Such bliss of a common spirituality was not shared in the Middle East. The Jewish God symbolized tyranny made divine. Persians and Mesopotamians needed to kneel abjectly to all the plutocrats they could find. Lack of water had led the civilization of the Middle East to dictatorship. The hydraulic dictatorship (Fernand Braudel) implied “Oriental Despotism” (Karl Marx). Fascism, cruel and demented, the “Right of Sword”.
Darius, who fought from Ethiopia to Ukraine, exhibited a clear case of the “Right of the Sword”. That existing mood was embraced 11 centuries later in the Qur’an. Unbelievably, the Sword is still festering today: arguing for the Right Of The Sword, Arab plutocrats are agitating, in 2014, to have Justinian’s Cathedral, Ἁγία Σοφία, “Holy Wisdom“,now a museum, been converted again to a mosque, so that the depiction of the real world represented therein be covered up again, as reality offends Islam.
This is an example of the persistence of moods and systems of ideas. Cynics will also point out that their genesis, namely the desert, only got worse.
Well, whatever: if we understand the situation, we can probably fix it. No empire, no law. Thus it remains to make the empire good.
Today the European Empire’s 28 heads of state approved Jean-Claude Junkers as head of the European Commission (the EU’s executive branch). The European Parliament is widely expected to elect Junkers next week. The 28 elected chiefs used the occasion to sign on the Free Trade and Association Treaty with Ukraine and Moldavia. Justly unsatisfied by this slap to Putin, they also sent Vlad the Impaler, back in Moscow, an ultimatum. Yes, an ultimatum. Electing the head of the EC is a furthering of democracy in the European empire. But democracy is naught, if it can’t bite.
The 28 EU leaders demanded that separatists return border checkpoints, release hostages and start talks to implement a peace plan drawn up by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko by June 30. Failure to do so will result in “further significant restrictive measures” against Russia.
Vlad The Invader has three days to obey. It may be time for him to remember what happened when his preceding supporter of minorities through annexations, Adolf Hitler, refused to obey. Unbelievably, France persuaded Britain to declare war.
Wisdom without doom is only gloom.