Imperialism may be immoral, but that's not why empires fall

By underlining the immorality of empire, Timothy H Parsons seeks to prove the impracticality of such power structures. Unfortunately, this is little short of wishful thinking.

A group of soldiers from the Boer War being given tea and grapes in Cape Town, South Africa.
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The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fail Timothy Parsons Reduced to its simplest terms, modern history has largely been a story of empires. More than any political ideology, imperialism itself - and the rise and clash of rival empires - has been the motor of history for the better part of the last millennium. The sun never set on the British Empire (at least for a few centuries), but it also shone on a legion of others. Both world wars can be seen, in part, as clashes between rival imperiums: the First World War brought about the end of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and the transformation of two others - those of Germany and Russia - into altogether more virulent versions of their old imperial selves. The British and French empires survived the Second World War only to collapse rapidly in the decades that followed.

Yet long after the demise of the great empires, imperialism remains a charged, if slippery, concept. Arguments still rage in the lands that once maintained vast colonial possessions over the justness of these arrangements - or over the benefits, intended or otherwise, that may have accrued to the peoples they formerly ruled. Today many commentators maintain that the United States, itself the product of an anti-colonialist revolt, has taken on the mantle of empire (or, relatedly, that it should do so), and that its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan bear all the hallmarks of an imperial war. Meanwhile, China, the centre of one of the ancient world's great empires, is behaving not very differently from the British empire - which consolidated its power as much through commerce as military conquest - in its heyday. But for all the contentiousness of these debates, in which the very word "empire" is a charged pejorative, the term eludes easy definition.

In The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fail, Timothy Parsons, the historian of colonial Africa, sets out to synthesise a general theory of imperialism from the examples of varied empires throughout the ages, and, in so doing, to cast a cold eye on empire's recent apologists, those like the British historian Niall Ferguson, who have argued that imperialism often worked as a force for good. Though Parsons proclaims his focus to be "the actual experience of imperial rule" - the lives of the subjects who lived under empire - he opens in a more theoretical mode, declaring that empires, as a rule, have had few redeeming qualities.

"Empire," he writes, "has never been more than naked self-interest masquerading as virtue." His true target, then, is less the empires themselves - whose evils he takes as self-evident - than modern-day defenders of imperialism, whose just-so stories credit modern empires with having "performed the necessary service of dragging backward countries into the modern world". For Parsons, whose tone of righteousness can be off-putting, imperialism's worst aspect was its hypocrisy, a conclusion that allows him to state, apparently in all seriousness, that "in many ways Hitler was the most honest empire-builder of the modern era."

"The myth of the liberal empire survives," according to Parsons, because history has been written by its victors: the voices of its subjects were "either silenced or never recorded at all". So he surveys seven different imperial moments - the Roman conquest of Britain in the first century AD; Muslim Spain; Spanish Peru; the Indian Raj; Italy under Napoleon; British Kenya; and the Nazi invasion of France. "Looking at empire from the bottom up," he writes, "exposes the mendacity of imperial balance sheets".

But his general definition of empire - "the formal, direct and authoritarian rule of one people over another? born of the attempt to leverage military advantage for profit" - has little to do with the experiences of its subjects. "No one became an imperial subject voluntarily," he writes, and while this may be true, there was something more at work than outright domination: in nearly every one of Parsons' examples, imperial powers needed the cooperation of local elites to consolidate their rule. The study of these relations between colonisers and their collaborators has been a fruitful area of study in the study of empire, and Parsons makes a provocative contribution. As he points out, the system contained its own fatal flaw, which turned on the necessary distinction between subject and citizen; even those who acted on behalf of the empire in their own lands, in other words, could never quite become equal to those they served.

Empires produce subjects, who do not, Parsons argues, have the same rights as citizens, persons "possessing the rights and privileges of full membership in a city or state". This is true enough, and yet also an oversimplification: an organic process of hybridisation often served to muddle this distinction. British tribal leaders adopted Roman ways and prayed to Roman gods, and "shared in the benefits of the Roman imperial project". In Muslim Spain, conversion to Islam, within certain limitations, became a way for the Spanish to attain a more equal footing with their Umayyad Arab rulers. In 17th-century Peru, intermarriage between Incas and Spanish conquistadors produced a new class, perched in between coloniser and colonised. Napoleon was committed to assimilating the lands he conquered. When subjects become citizens, Parsons says, it becomes much harder for empires to deny them rights, which may be why later imperial actors - Britain in India and Kenya, for example - tried to make the line between ruler and ruled sharper and more rigid to prevent such confusions.

Parsons says we must study empires from below, and he makes a pious fuss about the exploited subjects of empire, "subject peoples must be the central focus of any true assessment of an empire or the feasibility of imperial adventures", without really getting into their plight. In some cases, the historical record is scant (there is little testimony about the life of common people in ancient Britain) but throughout, Parsons presents a dry top-down account of imperial dynamics. His book is a long and detailed one, but it is essentially an attack on the idea of empire, an attempt to prove, as he writes in the introduction, that "empires by their very nature had to codify and enshrine inequality", and that "the fundamental reality of empires is that they are unsustainable because their subjects find them intolerable".

He argues that empires, in all instances, are pre-ordained to fail, and in the book's conclusion, he cites America's half-hearted attempt at ruling Iraq as one more example. (The Bush Doctrine, he writes, "was a classic excuse" for empire, whether or not American officials denied seeking it.) No empire is permanent, to be sure, but Parsons dodges a major question: why is it that imperialism, for good and ill, has been one of the most durable forms of political organisation in human history? (Many of the empires he studies, for example, assembled their territories at the expense of other empires.) The flexibility and diversity of empires through the ages leads Parsons to fall prey to a kind of definitional slipperiness, embracing an all-encompassing description of imperialism that is so expansive it has hardly any meaning at all. Surely there are greater differences than similarities between the rule of the Roman Empire - which endured for centuries - and the conquests of Hitler's Third Reich; nor would it seem possible to find any common factor that led each to its end.

Parsons takes the immorality of empire as his starting point, and few today would dispute this; even apologists for empires past acknowledge the violence they frequently visited upon their subjects. But by placing this immorality, in the form of inequality, at the centre of his case against the sustainability of imperial rule, he seems to be attempting, as philosophers might put it, to derive an "is" from an "ought": to show that the injustice of empire leads, inevitably, to its impracticality. It is a post-colonial spin on an old anti-imperial argument, which maintained that the cost of empire, in financial terms, was bound to exceed the extractive benefits of colonisation; empire, in this telling, was above all else a poor investment for its administrators.

The age of empires is now decidedly behind us, no matter what Washington or Beijing undertake in the decades to come. It would be nice, of course, if this obsolescence reflected some moral advancement - but to conclude as much would be yet another just-so story. Matthew Price, a regular contributor to The Review, has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and the Financial Times.