This latter principle enraged the Left as much as it scared the royalist establishment. Empire , postcolonialism, and left-leaning theories of imperialism thus fell on fertile intellectual soil in the Thai social sciences in the early years of the new millennium.
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Anti-imperialism followed the politically correct orthodoxy that empires are bad, resistance and protest are good. A book that has had a much less enthusiastic reception in Thai academia — indeed has hardly drawn any attention at all — is the similarly titled Empire subtitled How Britain Made the Modern World , first published in , by the prolific British historian, Neil Ferguson. Part of the difference in tone can be explained by the differing backgrounds of the authors.
Negri the main author of Empire is an Italian Marxist intellectual and political activist who had been a member of numerous leftist groups allegedly including the violent radical Red Brigades. He was convicted on a charge of insurrection against the state, and spent several years in jail. Ferguson himself spent two of his childhood years in the former British colony of Kenya, where his father taught and practiced medicine shortly after independence. Empire is a popular history of the British Empire, the largest empire in history, which Ferguson argues was instrumental in the making of the modern world.
Provocatively, Ferguson argues that the end of the British Empire was caused far less by the national independence movements in its colonies, the usual subject of romantic national histories of the period, than by rival empires which forced it to engage in massively devastating wars, thereby bringing the empire to near bankruptcy. The real cause of the end of the British Empire was therefore economic; following the end of the Second World War Britain was simply no longer able to sustain the costs of empire. Empire is also an attempt to respond to common critiques of imperialism.
Ferguson challenges both the Marxist and nationalist critiques that dominate academic studies of imperialism, as well as the less popular liberal critique of imperialism, which views the coercive features of imperial rule as having distorted the operation of free markets. He raises the question whether free markets and the public goods that they bring assuming one believes in free markets can be achieved without empire. Among its achievements must be included the great scientific and technological advances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the railways and telegraph system, the Common Law, the global system of free trade and liberal capitalism, the values of religious freedom, the movement toward gender equality, and most importantly, political notions of liberty.
In this respect Ferguson forcefully argues that the British Empire can be credited as having played a major role in making the modern world. What would this world have looked like if the British Empire had not existed? The British imperialists had many competitors: not just European rivals — French, Dutch, Russians, Belgians, and, most fearsomely, Germans — but also Ottomans, Chinese, and later Japanese. Would the world have been better off if one of these competing imperial powers had ruled instead of the British?
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It is easy to criticize this apparently rosy view of Empire. And in any case, would other empires, or even the native rulers who were overcome and surpassed by the empire, have done better? It was written at the time of the US invasion of Iraq and the great controversy that it caused. I have no objection in principle to an American empire.
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Indeed, a part of my argument is that many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule. But what the world needs today is not any kind of empire. What is required is a liberal empire — that is to say, one that not only underwrites the free international exchange of commodities, labor, and capital but also creates and upholds the conditions without which markets cannot function — peace and order, the rule of law, non-corrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies — as well as provides public goods, such as transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools, which would not otherwise exist… p.
Unlike the majority of European writers who have written on this subject I am fundamentally in favour of empire.
Indeed I believe that empire is more necessary in the twenty-first century than ever before. America is strangely reluctant to view itself as an empire and consequently fails to act accordingly. They would rather consume than conquer. They would rather build shopping malls than nations. This is where America differs from Britain in its heyday. Though dated and hopelessly politically incorrect in its language, the problematic for a nation aspiring to empire is the same for America today as it was when Kipling first wrote it:.
The irony that runs through Colossus is that America is, for all intents and purposes, an empire with a long tradition of anti-imperialism that originates from its own birth as a nation in revolution against the British Empire.
Since its arrival as a great power on the international scene following the conflagration of World War I, America has consistently promoted the freedom and self-determination of nations. Unlike Britain, the US for the most part preferred not to take formal political control of other nations. It is an empire in denial. Yet from its birth, the United States had an expansionist agenda. Later the US began to acquire overseas possessions in the Pacific with the aim of securing a base from which to commercially penetrate Asia — Guam, Samoa, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and, perhaps most controversially, the Philippines.
The annexation of the Philippines is often regarded as the high point of US imperialism and out of character with usual US practice. It provoked considerable domestic opposition, including from the great literary figure Mark Twain and the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The Democratic Party put Filipino independence on their party platform for the elections.
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And in , Republican President Theodore Roosevelt is said to have privately considered withdrawing from a war that was not only unpopular at home over American servicemen had been killed , but financially debilitating. Ferguson shows the following similarities between the US intervention in the Philippines and the invasion of Iraq in Taken to its furthest extent, the principle of national self-determination would spell the end of the multinational empires in Europe — and later the empires of the colonized world.
In the end America itself failed to join the League of Nations and retreated into isolation. Following that war much of Europe was devastated and its economies almost destroyed. While the US came to the economic aid of its Western allies with the Marshall Plan, it simultaneously hastened the disintegration of the British, French and Dutch colonial empires.
Perhaps even more importantly, as Ferguson points out, the very ability of the US to finance a liberal empire is in jeopardy. In the aftermath of its difficulties in Iraq and the huge pressure of world opinion, the US seems to have all but abandoned its plans for a more assertive liberal empire.
It has suffered a debilitating loss of confidence not only in its own power to bring about transformation toward a global liberal political order, but also about the very morality of such a mission. Empire has therefore gone quickly back out of fashion.
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Ferguson argues that the common explanations of twentieth century violence — the Great Depression of the s, the rise of the radical new ideologies of communism and fascism, bitter class conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the rise of the modern nation-state and its greatly increased powers of social control — are inadequate. He sees the violence as primarily caused by three factors: ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and the decline and breakup of empires. SUNY Plattsburgh.
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