On Degrees of Imperial Sovereignty
We don’t do empire.
Donald Rumsfeld, quoted in Roger Cohen, “Strange Bedfellows: ‘Imperial America’ Retreats from Iraq,” New York Times, July 4, 2004
“Empire”1 is a watchword of the times and, in the corridors of Washington, D.C., “suddenly hot intellectual property.”2 The assertion of temporal immediacy and of real-world value prompts questions about what new political interests make empire “hot” today, what forms of knowledge are staked out as credible, what accrues to those with proprietary claims on how empires once operated, and how a subject of historical study once deemed too remote for political pragmatists “suddenly” becomes repositioned at conceptual center stage.3
Certainly empire is not “hot” because it is new. Nor is it “hot” because the United States doesn’t “do empire” or because it has just acquired one. Scholars, politicians, and public intellectuals have vehemently disagreed about imperial practice and abuse, about imperial stretch and “overstretch” of the U.S. polity since the mid – nineteenth century. Favored examples include Mark Twain’s 1867 anti-imperialist satire on government plans to buy the island of St. Thomas, his outrage at the U.S. initiative in 1884 to recognize the Congo Free State in the wake of King Leopold’s campaign of carnage in the name of progress, and his relentless condemnations at the turn of the twentieth century of the U.S.- Philippine War.4 Some point to W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1915 appraisal that World War I was not a battle in Europe but a war over black bodies and imperial contests over Africa.5 William Appelman Williams’s insistent arguments in the 1950s against American exceptionalism and his tracing of U.S. imperial interventions back to the 1780s is familiar to all serious students of U.S. expansion.6 Similarly, students of U.S. interventions in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia have never hesitated to call the structured violence of occupation, annexation, scramble for access to ports and raw materials, capital expansion, and the dislocations that followed — despite the United States’s lack of “colonies proper” — by their imperial name.
What has changed, then, is not the declaration of empire but the force field in which it operates, the breadth of its metaphoric extensions, and the breadth of an American public for whom it has been readied for consumption. What has changed dramatically is not only the currency of empire as an evocation of the moment but the alternating density and absence of historical referents called upon; the cross section of, and crossover between, scholars and national policy advisors who (many for the first time) find themselves with both disparate and shared understandings of how a common language should be used.
For colonial studies — a field devoted to the nature of European empires, their rationales, technologies, and representations of rule — thinking critically about empire in the current context prompts pointed questions: Do the conventions of colonial scholarship hinder or help an assessment of what constitutes contemporary imperial conditions and imperial effects? Do its analytic frames encourage or dissuade engagement with current debates? And not least, what does and should effective, rather than applied, knowledge about empire look like now?
Political pundits and Euro-American scholars of the long-nineteenth-century “age of empire” are alternately at odds and in agreement over whether British imperial strategies in Asia and Africa have useful lessons to teach. Washington’s political advisers — like scholars — deftly craft strategic historical comparisons. But the former are now working with those about peoples long off their radar, in places rarely acknowledged as figuring on their working political maps. Now the exercise of French colonialism in Algeria in the 1950s is deemed directly pertinent to the tactics of torture and moral ethics of intervention. Social Science Research Council Director Craig Calhoun, in a call for papers on the “lessons of empire” in the fall of 2003, rightly identified a disconnect between what academics do and what discourse pervades public domains. But what constitutes the disconnect? It may lie less in the terms used than in the nature of empire as a moving target. Students of colonialism are notably not at the forefront of these debates. Are we absent because our prevailing models of empire have long been constricted, unyielding to the changing terms of these charged conversations?
In this essay, I move toward arguing three points. First, that colonial studies has subscribed to a myopic view of empire that sidelines a wide range of imperial forms as anomalous, casting their political and territorial ambiguities as idiosyncratic. On this view, the United States is one of several exceptions, at the edges of empire proper rather than an exemplar of some of its basic formations. Second, I take the debate over whether the United States is an exception as a stale and stalled one. I start rather from the premise that what I would prefer to call “imperial formations” are macropolities whose technologies of rule thrive on the production of exceptions and their uneven and changing proliferation. Critical features of imperial formations include harboring and building on territorial ambiguity, redefining legal categories of belonging and quasi-membership, and shifting the geographic and demographic zones of partially suspended rights.
Third, I argue that imperial formations are not now and rarely have been clearly bordered and bounded polities. We can think of them better as scaled genres of rule that produce and count on different degrees of sovereignty and gradations of rights. They thrive on turbid taxonomies that produce shadow populations and ever-improved coercive measures to protect the common good against those deemed threats to it. Finally, imperial formations give rise both to new zones of exclusion and new sites of — and social groups with — privileged exemption. Before turning to some of these proposals, I look at the interface of academic and public empire talk and how these debates are framed by different notions of what constitutes imperial presence.
Academic Paces and Public Debate
If colonial studies once worried that it had positioned itself as being too comfortably “safe for scholarship,” it is (and should be) not so comfortable now.7 Conservative journals like the National Interest share with students of imperial history a focused interest in the perils and promises of empire past and present, while political elites and their advisors ponder what a measured imperial vision might destroy or ably serve in Afghanistan or Iraq. Eric Hobsbawm has written forcefully in Le monde diplomatique that today’s American empire “has little in common” with the nineteenth-century British empire and has dismissed point by point any productive comparison between the two.8 Alternately, British imperial historian A. G. Hopkins’s feature essay in the New York Times declared that the lessons of the “civilizing mission” (“underestimated” difficulties, unrealistic plans, wrong-headed premises) were unlearned at the time and should be better learned today.9
Few have missed the fact that the dominant rhetoric of an American imperium celebrates a geopolitical form once denied, if not condemned. Critics long have claimed that the United States is an empire in denial, but both critics and advocates now find it in openly cautious — even expectant — celebration. On both sides are a new set of descriptive referents. Thus a former member of Ronald Reagan’s Department of State, Robert Kagan, refers to a “benevolent empire” (“a better international arrangement than all realistic alternatives”) and Robert Cooper, advisor to Tony Blair, declares it a “new liberal empire” and a “cooperative” one. The equally applauded terms “voluntary empire,” “humanitarian imperialism,” or “empire by invitation” hail the advent of a beneficent macropolity endowed with consensual rather than coercive qualities.10
Empire’s critics also have sought new modifiers for an empire whose architects and agents until recently refused to call it by that name. Michael Mann’s “incoherent empire” cannot “control occupied territories like the Europeans used to” because practices in Afghanistan and Iraq are “too rudimentary to be considered imperial.”11 Others insist on the “invisible” qualities of U.S. empire and stress its new, more secretive manifestations. But less visible than what? Invisible to whom? “Humanitarian imperialism,” “the arrogant empire,” “the conceited empire,” “the quasi-empire,” “the invisible empire,” or alternately the “global” one implicitly and explicitly conjure comparisons with received accounts and tacit features of what European empires were known to be: coherent, full-blown, visible, blatantly coercive, overtly exploitative, territorially distinct, and decidedly not committed to humanitarian intervention. But were they?12 A critical, discomforting move, as Friedrich Nietzsche counseled, should be awkward and untimely; it might question received notions of imperial forms, the politics of these comparisons, and their consolations.13
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This essay was initially delivered in an earlier form at the Social Science Research Council conference “Lessons of Empire” in fall 2003. I thank the students in my New School graduate seminar on “Empire and the Politics of Comparison” for their hard questions. I thank the audiences at the University of Toronto and Harvard University and my colleagues in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan for their thoughtful challenges and confirmations. I especially thank Amy Kaplan, Fred Cooper, Fernando Coronil, Lawrence Hirschfeld, Claudio Lomnitz, Ussama Makdisi, George Steinmetz, the editorial board of Public Culture, and participants in the Santa Fe seminar “Colonial Studies beyond Europe” for their pressing queries and recommendations.
- In the article’s epigraph, Roger Cohen seems to have confused two of Rumsfeld’s statements: one, “We don’t do diplomacy,” and two, “We don’t seek empire,” the latter his response to an al- Jazeera reporter who asked him whether the Bush administration was “bent on empire building.” He answered, “We don’t seek empire. We’re not imperialistic. We never have been. I can’t imagine why you’d even ask the question.”
- Martin Sieff, “Analysis: Arguments against U.S. Empire,” Washington Times, July 15, 2003.
- The relevance of academic expertise to political strategy does not in itself make intellectual property “hot.” On the contrary, the use of ethnographic knowledge for U.S. military projects was once deemed classified knowledge, covertly gathered and studied, and decidedly not available to popular scrutiny. The surreptitious requisition of what academics knew about Vietnamese populations and their deep affiliations in the 1960s by U.S. military operations for “strategic hamlet studies,” about Latin American guerrilla tactics in 1964 – 65 by the U.S. Army for Project Camelot, and about counterinsurgency operations in Thailand in the 1970s by Defense Department strategists all raised the political stakes of ethnographic knowledge, but not as front-page news — ethnographic terms were not vetted as public commodities. See, for example, Irving Horowitz, ed., The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot: Studies in the Relationship between Social Science and Practical Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1967); Eric Wakin, Anthropology Goes to War: Professional Ethics and Counterinsurgency in Thailand (Madison: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin, 1992).
- See, for example, the boondocksnet.com sites on “Mark Twain on War and Imperialism” by Jim Zwick, a listing of hundreds of newspaper articles for the 1890s alone by such well-known figures as William James and Jane Addams.
- W. E. B. Du Bois, “The African Roots of War,” Atlantic, May 1915, 360 – 71.
- William Appelman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament, along with a Few Thoughts about an Alternative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
- Nicholas Dirks, ed., Colonialism and Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 5.
- Eric Hobsbawm, “Ou va l’Empire americain?” Le monde diplomatique, June 11, 2003, 1.
- A. G. Hopkins, “Lessons of ‘Civilizing Missions’ Are Mostly Unlearned,” Week in Review, New York Times, March 23, 2003.
- Robert Kagan, “The Benevolent Empire,” Foreign Policy, Summer 1998, 24 – 35; Robert Cooper, “Why We Still Need Empires,” Observer, April 7, 2002; Daniel Vernet, “Postmodern Imperialism,” Le monde, April 24, 2003. These are echoed by Niall Ferguson, who approvingly invokes what he calls late-nineteenth-century Britain’s most self-consciously authentic imperial politician Joe Chamberlain’s favored term, “an imperial preference” (Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power [New York: Penguin, 2002], 284).
- Michael Mann, The Incoherent Empire (London: Verso, 2003), 29.
- Thus Charles Maier, former director of Harvard’s Center for European Studies, writes of a “quasi-American empire”: “We believed it was an empire with a difference — a coordination of economic exchange and security guarantees welcomed by its less powerful member states, who preserved their autonomy.” “Forum: An American Empire,” Harvard Magazine, November – December 2002, 1. Students of Latin American history have long argued that the face of Spanish and U.S. imperial projects have borne little resemblance to either model.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 101.