“History is idle gossip about a happening whose truth is lost the instant it has taken place.” — Gore Vidal Julian.
The world we live in was largely shaped and built by empires yet we know little about them. Such ignorance is a fatal mistake because the 21st Century is likely to be shaped by the interaction of empires, largely the American and Chinese.
Ignorance about empires is magnified by popular culture and opinion; which usually casts the empire as big, clunky, clumsy, bad, and ineffective and whoever is fighting it as noble, nimble and good. Star Wars is the most visible and popular example of this mythos but far from the only one.
Understanding what empires are and how they work can increase our understanding of the world. The best way to understand empires, without justifying imperialism, is to dispel some myths about them. That is what I will attempt to do in the little essay below.
A Few Things you did not know about Empires
Empires have been one of the most common political arrangements in human history because they are among the most successful and durable. Here are some reasons for imperial success and some historical analysis you might be unaware of.
Empires can last a lot longer than most people believe
The Roman Empire lasted for 1,000 years if the era of the Roman Republic is viewed as part of the imperial era. One of the successor states to Rome the Byzantine Empire endured for another 1,000 years. Two of the successor states to the Byzantine Empire; the Ottoman and Russian empires, endured into the 20th Century.
The world’s oldest Empire; China, began around 206 BC with the Han Dynasty and is still with us in the form of the People’s Republic of China. Other long lived Empires include that of the Arabs, 632–1258 (over 600 years) Russia (roughly 1500 to present), the Ottoman Empire (1453 to 1918), the Spanish Empire lasted from around 1490 to 1820 in Latin America, and 1521 to 1898 in the Philippines, and the British Empire. The British Empire lasted for about 350 years (roughly 1600 to 1950).
Empires are often Very Effectively Militarily
A major reason why empires have endured and been successful is that they are very effective at marshaling military resources. The Greek, Roman, Arab, Mongol, Turkish, Spanish, and British Empires were highly effective at deploying new military technologies and tactics.
The British won World War I; and survived World War II, because of their ability to mobilize the resources of their empire. The Russian Empire’s resources were critical to Allied survival and victory in World War II.
The Allies’ victory ultimately depended on the American Empire which was even better at mobilizing resources and adapting technology than the British. The United States took vague German notions about an atomic bomb and made them a reality in less than four years.
More recently, no nation has been able to successfully challenge the military resources of the American Imperium. Though it is likely that China; which has the world’s longest history of imperialism, might do just that.
Empires are Very Effective Transmitters of Information
The most interesting and disturbing aspect of imperialism is that Empires are very effective transmitters of information. Modern philosophers like Cesar A. Hidalgo attribute the success of our civilization to the increasing complexity of information.
That theory explains why empires have often endured and succeeded, they are very good at transmitting information. The tongue of the British Empire, English is now the universal language of technology, sports, commerce, law, diplomacy, popular culture, and increasingly politics. Football or soccer; the pastime of British Imperial soldiers, is now the world’s game.
Empires are even better at spreading cultural information such as religion and politics. The world’s largest religious group is Sunni Islam which added around 1.5 billion adherents in 2017 according to the Pew Research Center. Sunni Islam was the official religion of the Arab, Ottoman, and Moghul empires.
The second largest religious group is Roman Catholicism which had an estimated 1.28 billion adherents in 2017. Around 40% of those adherents were in Latin America which was ruled by the officially Catholic Spanish and Portuguese empires. The world’s largest religion is Christianity which was the official religion of many empires ranging from the Roman to the British.
The British were even better at spreading their political ideologies than they were at spreading their language. British-style parliamentary democracy is now the world’s most common form of governmental organization. Constitutional monarchies; another British innovation, are also very common, flourishing in such diverse nations as Thailand and Denmark.
British common law and popular culture ranging; from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes to the Beetles to James Bond to Harry Potter, have also spread far and wide. British literary forms including the novel, plays, essays, and genres such as mystery, fantasy, science fiction, are now the world’s norms.
Even Gandhi’s nonviolence; which helped bring down Britain’s Indian Empire, can be described as a product of imperial data transmission. Gandhi got his ideas of nonviolence from the American Henry David Thoreau and the Russian Count Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi read their works in the imperial language — English.
Unsuccessful empires are great information transmitters; Napoleon I’s Empire which lasted roughly 15 years was highly effective in transmitting new modes of law, warfare, governmental organization, and administration to the rest of Europe. Napoleon III’s Second Empire; which lasted a little longer transmitted plebiscites, modern urban planning, urban renewal, populism, and its ideas of fashion to the world. The failed Nazi Empire transmitted new technologies such as rockets, and new military tactics around the world.
Empires are also very good at picking up new information from smaller entities and defeated enemies and retransmitting it. Christianity and Jewish religious beliefs were transmitted to the world by Rome.
The British took the new economy the Dutch had built; which included a stock market, insurance policies, stock companies, and government financed by debt, around the world. Most countries now have a British (actually Dutch) style economy and government.
How Empires Created our Economy
The British also picked up on the Swedish innovation of a central bank to issue government debt and issue paper money and transmitted that to the world.
In recent decades, the British have been less successful in efforts to transmit another Swedish innovation; the welfare state, to the world. Although, there have been few successes; notably in Canada, Singapore, and Australia.
It was the American Empire that successfully transmitted the German science and technology of the late 19th and 20th centuries to the world. More recently, it was the Chinese Empire (rebranded as the People’s Republic) that figured out how to adapt American technological innovations; such as the smartphone, into mass-market consumer products. Much as American innovators like Henry Ford successfully adapted the automobile; a German invention, to a mass consumer market a century before.
Given that record of success, empires are likely to dominate the new millennium as they did earlier eras. The challenge facing us will be to formulate new empires that respect human rights as they transmit information. If we cannot do that, we will face a new millennium of war and oppression.
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