Book Review: Perils of Empire

By Jim Miles

The Perils of Empire.  James Laxer.  Viking (Penguin), Toronto. 2008.

The concept of empire has been discussed quite rigorously by various authors since the advent of the Bush administration, with views ranging from neocon jingoism through more academic apologists to those berating empire for the ills of the world.  While not all ills of the world arise from imperialism, certainly a good portion of them do as many of them are strongly correlated – world debt, militarism, war, insurrection, global warming, the newly emerging food crisis are all related strongly with the imperial drive.  The discussion of empire includes the obvious historical comparisons and the discussion as to whether or not the U.S. runs an empire, and again many authors with a wide range of views either deny what has tended to become a self-evident truth, to those that are capable of digging into the dirty world of empirical hubris and seeing it for what it has been historically and what it is currently.  James Laxer’s “The Perils of Empire” is another useful addition to the imperial genre but it lacks the rigour of many of the more powerful works, at best it is an ‘adequate overview’.

The first section of the book is a relatively academic overview of the arguments swirling around empire, but mostly the apologetics of Brezenski, Fukuyama, Ignatieff, Fergusen, the Wilsonians, and the neocon PNAC members.  There is little in the way of advocacy for a position to be argued and the author’s position remains somewhat ambivalent.  There is a definite sympathy at times for the American empire starting with 9/11 as a “time of such understandable American popular fury,” that unleashed the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq.  However, there is no mention of the artifice of that fury created by American ignorance of its own background, historical amnesia concerning various American massacres at home and abroad, and the media circus and simplistic views that built upon that ignorance and amnesia.

When “Facing Up to Empire,” one of the initial statements is “An empire is first, last, and always an affair of blood,” while shortly Laxer says, “the benefits of empire are many,” without defining what the benefits are.  The somewhat contradictory position is brought together indirectly by subsequent discussion on the “ruling class,” the “aristocrats,” the “upper classes,” suggesting that perhaps the many benefits accrue to the wealthy upper classes while the affair of blood remains mainly with the poor classes –  suggested but not made into a central argument of his thesis.  The concept of “elitism” recurs very frequently throughout the work, acting as a unifying theme, but it is not stated as such.  I’ll return to this critique in a moment, but allow me to move on to another definition.

Three different types of empire are described, but one of the strongest tie-ins is the statement that “slavery and empire were the underpinnings for the emergence of civilization.”  Certainly there are strong correlations between empire and slavery but one does not necessitate the other, nor do the two of them in any way create the basis for civilization.  Would the corollary hold true, that because we have slaves and own land, we are civilized?  Were all civilizations empires (consider the Minoans here)?   As for civilization, is technology being mistaken for the sole arbiter of its development or do cultural components come into effect as well?   And would not empires absorb the culture and technology – not to mention the wealth – of subordinate or conquered areas?

Laxer then slips into a short apologetics for empire saying that the demise of empire had the effect that “people reverted to more primitive ways,” which carries the assumption that empires are better than the previous existing civilization and after them is only primitiveness. Will the world be in a more primitive state with the demise of the American empire (those who know my writing will know my response to this)?  Did the Soviet Union enter a more primitive state, or did it survive the ravages of free market racketeers to become a stronger, smaller more effective state called Russia? 

Again, another truth followed by an unsubstantiated assumption: “the history of the species has been written by and on behalf of the privileged [not to be mistaken for social Darwinism]”; followed by “The idea that wealth, the arts, sciences, and literature rest on the exploitation of the vast majority of the human race.” Yes, the winners write the history (the privileged part of the victors at any rate) and yes, the accumulation of wealth has a direct correspondence to empire, but empire is not necessarily the cause neither of wealth nor of advances in arts and science.

While discussing legitimacy of empire, the idea of cultural, moral, religious, and technological superiority abound, primarily directed again at the elites, but America also draws significantly on “soft” power for “winning the hearts and minds…through the power of American popular culture.”  By other definitions, soft power equates to propaganda and economic dominance; more currently soft power has certainly not captured the hearts and minds of the Middle East. 

Laxer then discusses the rise and fall of various empires and the forces that contributed to both their ascent and descent.  Two main themes stand out, and had they been stated as themes in the introduction, the book would have made for a more solid presentation.  As it stands, the historical comparisons are academically well enough done, creating a good historical overview of the various civilizations explored.  The empires viewed start with Egypt and range through Athens, China, Rome, Spain, and ending with Britain (while mentioning other smaller empires along the way).  The two themes common to all of them are elitism and militarism.

Elitism is the empirical practice of supporting a small group within a larger population to act as leaders.  They could be racial minorities raised to a more powerful position, or a class minority, the ‘capture’ and utilisation of an existing cultural or economic elite already within the ruled area. All the empires mentioned practiced some form of elitism[1]. That is clearly what has happened, if not very successfully, with the Karzai government in Afghanistan, and is but a broken dream in Iraq.  It has been used very widely in the past, successfully one could argue for Japan and Germany where the pre-war elites remained in power, less successfully for Chile under Pinochet.  Saudi Arabia is another example of cultural elitism that has successfully maintained the house of Saud and its dominance over the Arabian Peninsula. 

The latter is also a good example of the other force of empire, the military. Again, Laxer develops the idea of military conquest, military surveillance, and military support as one of the key structures of all empires. There can be little doubt for this argument, and there can be no doubt that it is the main support behind the American empire, including its “soft” empire.  A further aspect of this is the increasing use of mercenaries, vassal state armies, and hired militaries as the empire became wealthier and the citizens themselves less inclined to fight their own wars. With businesses such as Blackwater in Iraq, and the many states that fight alongside the U.S. (with the NATO coalition – including Canada – being one set of hired guns for empire whether they like to think that way or not) indicate the late developments of a declining empire.

The final section of the book examines more particularly the American empire, mainly the post WWII period.  The statement made near the beginning of this discussion that “the underlying purpose of empire is to extract labor” is partially correct.  Certainly cheap labour is one requisite of empire, but having labour immobilized such as it is now under various free trade agreements and then subject to decreasing wages and marginal opportunities for employment puts it under the main impetus for empire – the accumulation of wealth from the hinterland to the heartland (read homeland for America).

Laxer’s discussion of current trends within the American empire are reasonable but reinforce some of the ambivalence in his tone. Hugo Chavez is described as a “rebellious leader,” with a “populist left wing regime” being one of the “disquieting signs of moving out of Washington’s orbit.”  Why disquieting?  Why not a positive sign?  Why “rebellious”, or is that a compliment referring to the American rebellion against the British (rhetorical)?  And is he “populist” or simply very popular and truly democratic as he has won, very democratically, several elections and referendum, and the one he lost recently he accepted and continued on without calling in the military or goon squads as Central American U.S. supported leaders tend to do?  Chavez is also said to be “reconciled to constitutional democracy,” but more correctly he appears to be committed to it as indicated by his last referendum defeat.  Later his policies are described as a “well funded and sophisticated threat…” to whom?  American oil interests or the good of the Venezuelan people?  I would have to ask the author is there really an underlying intention to denounce what has become one of the stronger democratic states in the Americas?

More semi-apologetics come into the work.  Laxer implies that the American empire does not rely “on slave labor and on plunder” but on “the free flow of capital in every part of the world.”  Well, not quite free, as the rules and regulations of the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD and their various treaties guarantee only the free flow of capital [wealth] from less developed countries to the imperial American heartland.  Were not slave labour and plunder an essential part of the conquest of the North American continent? 

Oil is recognized as being important to the American empire as it “transformed life in America, reshaping the cities with the emergence of suburbs, and gave Americans a freedom of movement” except that oil was originally an industrial resource and the suburbs did not arise until the advent of a relatively cheap internal combustion engine combined with the automaker imposed demise of major cities’ streetcar systems.  Great Britain and the U.S. have long been involved in schemes to control Middle East oil, sometimes through military force, sometimes through corporate force.

Finally the discussion ends with prospects for the American empire.  I have provided above some significant criticism of Laxer’s ideas and word choice but his conclusion on the empire is hopeful: “What is coming is no less than the dethroning of the United States as the central economy around which the global system revolves.”  There is no suggestion that the actual global system will change leaving the U.S. as a smaller player in the corporate empires of the world. The ramifications from that are unknown, from possible more intense military actions, to a more multilaterally cooperative state, to a global economic downturn that could seriously affect the nature of corporate power around the world. We should find out soon enough.

Okay, damned with faint praise and some serious critique, “The Perils of Empire” is not the best read on imperial adventures. More advocated focus on the elitism-militarism duality plus recognition of the corporate power that finds strength in the Washington consensus would improve the stream of argument.  As for authors thinking of future books on defining or arguing about empire…enough.  From Andrew Bacevich, James Carroll, Amy Chua, and Chalmers Johnson among others, through to the apologists for empire as presented in the first section of this book the American empire is a well-established truth.  By all means maintain the critiques of the current empire, but an empire it is. 


[1] see also Amy Chua’s works World on Fire and Day of Empire, both of which deal significantly with elitism.

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle.  Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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