Book Summaries History

Chapter 11: Imperial Visions (Sapiens)

We think empires are evil, but are they?

An empire is a political order. To qualify as an empire, you must rule over different peoples – each with their unique cultural identity and territory. The other requirement is to have flexible borders and an unlimited appetite. Modern day Britain has well-defined borders, but 100 years ago, anywhere in the world could have become a part of the British Empire.

The British Empire, the largest empire in history, was ruled by a democracy. Other democratic (or at least republican) empires have included the modern Dutch, French, Belgian and American empires, as well as the premodern empires of Novgorod, Rome, Carthage and Athens.

You may think that empires do not work. That over the long run, it is not possible to rule over so many conquered peoples. And that even if it were possible, it should not be done since people should have the right to self-determination. The first statement is false, while the second is problematic.

The empire has been the most common form of political organization for the last 2,500 years. It is also a very stable form of government. Rebellions against imperialists have been alarmingly easy to shut down. The conquered people barely stand a chance, they end up being slowly digested by their conquerors, until their own cultures fizzle out.

Imperialists, whether the Communists, the Assyrians, or the US believe that they are making the world the better place. Today the US claims it is spreading democracy and human right to depraved nations, and many of its people agree that this is a humane thing to do – even if through cruise missiles and F-16’s.

There has always been a clash between one’s national interests, and that of the imperial global order, but in truth, it has not been difficult for imperialists to dominate people outside their empire. These people, even if they accepted the culture of the imperialists, would not be treated like them. A long time would need to pass before they are considered on par.

When the Western Roman Empire finally fell to invading Germanic tribes in 476 AD, the Numantians, Arverni, Helvetians, Samnites, Lusitanians, Umbrians, Etruscans and hundreds of other forgotten peoples whom the Romans conquered centuries earlier did not emerge from the empires eviscerated carcass like Jonah from the belly of the great fish. None of them were left.

But it is too simplistic to think of empires as all bad, and that they leave nothing valuable behind. Imperial elites use the profits of their conquest not only to build stronger armies but to foster philosophy, art, justice, and charity. Many cultural achievements occurred because of conquered populations.

The profits and prosperity brought by Roman imperialism provided Cicero, Seneca and St Augustine with the leisure and wherewithal to think and write; the Taj Mahal could not have been built without the wealth accumulated by Mughal exploitation of their Indian subjects; and the Habsburg Empire’s profits from its rule over its Slavic, Hungarian and Romanian-speaking provinces paid Haydn’s salaries and Mozart’s commissions.

Beyond art and culture, we find that most of the world survives on imperial legacies today. Most of us speak, think, and dream in imperial languages that were forced upon our ancestors. Modern Egyptians speak and embrace Arabic, they think of themselves as Arabs, but the Arab empire conquered Egypt in the 7th century and crushed the revolts that broke out against it.

The world is still politically fragmented, but states are losing their independence. Independent economic or military policies are becoming rarer. The global market is becoming more influential. States are required to conform to global standards of financial behavior, environmental policy, and justice.

The global empire that is currently being built is not governed by one ethnic group or state. Like the Late Roman Empire, a multi-ethnic elite are the rulers, and common interests and culture hold it together.

Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire.

Read Sapiens

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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