The Imperial Idea, its Imperfect Execution, and its Eventual Undoing
18 November 2015
One of the most interesting aspects of our civilization today — what I call industrial-technological civilization — is that its emergence can be pinpointed in space and time to a much greater degree of precision than most major historical developments. Industrial-technological civilization comes into being following the industrial revolution, and the industrial revolution has its origins in England in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Because the industrial revolution originated in England, England was the first industrialized society, though Germany was not far behind, and many of the fundamental scientific discoveries that intensified the ongoing industrial revolution had their origins in Germany.
It is no coincidence that, a hundred years after the industrial revolution, the British Empire had rapidly become the largest empire in human history. A Wikipedia article on the largest empires lists the British Empire as number one, covering more than twenty percent of the world’s land area and including about twenty percent of the world’s total population within its borders. (The greatest extent of the British Empire is given as 1922, so if we allow the validity of the idea of the “long nineteenth century” this means that this period of the greatest extent of the empire was roughly a century after industrialization when British power reached its zenith; it also was not a coincidence that the rise of British power occurred during the “long nineteenth century” which constituted the stable geopolitical context of Britain’s rise to global superpower status.) The British Empire had become, “The empire on which the sun never sets,” because its global reach meant that there was always some part of the empire in which it was daytime.
It is at least arguable that the British with their empire simply sought to do what all previous empire builders had sought to do. Why were they successful, or disproportionately successful, as compared with other empires? Empires in previous ages ran into the geographical limits of their technologies. In earlier history, once the idea of empire has its proof of concept in antiquity with empires such as the Akkadian Empire and the Assyrian Empire, and the possibilities of empire were first glimpsed, we see throughout history the rise of empires that expand spatially until their institutions of power can no longer sustain imperial control and the empire collapses internally. The rise and fall of empires is like the regular respiration of (agrarian) history.
And then something suddenly changed. The British expanded their empire at the first time in history when there were steam-powered ships, turreted battleships, trains, global telecommunications through the telegraph, and mass media newspapers. The limitations of the technology of administration and social control had suddenly been removed (or, at least, greatly mitigated), and the British were the first to take advantage of this because they were the first industrialized society and so the first to exploit these technologies on a large scale. The British had stumbled onto their moment in history. John Robert Seely wrote in his The Expansion of England (1883) that, “we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” This improbable quote has been repeated so many times because it captures the haphazard and almost accidental character of British empire building.
Because the British Empire rapidly reached the extent of the globe, and had nowhere further to expand, this first experiment in global technological empire was also the last experiment in global technological empire. By the end of the twentieth century the British Empire had devolved its possessions, mostly peacefully, and its former subject peoples mostly enjoy self-determination, for better or worse. The British (unknowingly) exploited a singular historical opportunity to construct an empire not subject to the constraints of limited transportation and communications that hobbled earlier imperial efforts (one might even call this a “singularity” if the word had not already been overused in every imaginable way). No matter how often the terms “empire” and “imperial” are employed today as terms of abuse, no other political entity has moved into the vacuum left by the British Empire, because it left no power vacuum in its wake. The institutions of popular sovereignty and nation-states filled the void with very different power structures than that of empire.
It would be instructive to engage in a detailed comparative study of the devolution of the Hapsburg Empire and the British Empire, as in each case we have an empire that originated in medieval European kingship, surviving into the modern world and playing a major role in world history. Despite their similarities, the Hapsburg Empire vanished almost without a trace, whereas the British Empire lives on in a modified form as the Commonwealth. The Hapsburg Empire unwound almost in an instant with the end of the First World War, whereas the British Empire gradually unwound over many decades, through dozens of managed transitions to independence. There is something to be learned from the latter example that the world has failed to learn in its rush to condemn colonialism from an assumed position of moral superiority.
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