American Civilization

January 31, 2009

Empire and Colony (part one)

Filed under: colonization,Empire & Colony — equiano @ 3:29 pm


On Thursday I remarked that the root word of “culture”— colere, a term that originally possessed a range of meanings including inhabit, cultivate, protect, and honor with worship– developed in several different directions: colonus (colony), cultus (cult) and cultura (culture). This etymological foundation thus links together in a fortuitous way the possible connotations of culture as it is used today. In a global society– i.e. a planet that has been transformed by an accelerating and deepening process of ‘globalization‘– in which culture occupies a prominent position in terms of daily life and economic activity, culture becomes not only an expression or refraction of social conditions but (according to your view) a weapon, a source of either connection or antagonism, an all-encompassing concept that seems to contain all possible forms and products of human activity. (The latter phrase– “human activity”– is possibly the broadest definition of culture, one drawn from anthropological antecedents.) Culture as American culture, as the ubiquity of American cultural products and practices, has provoked reactions across the world, as with Jose Bove’s dismantling of a McDonald’s in Montpellier. While Bove’s direct action was, in part, a response to GM products it also spoke to an aesthetic concern– namely that the spread of fast food has undermined our relationship to what we eat and threatens global cultural diversity. Here, it would seem, colonus and cultura are once more intertwined: globalization as the dissemination of American culture (and the American economic model of neoliberalism) is seen by some to be a form of cultural imperialism (pdf): the colonization of other cultures.

But let’s move onto the issues broached in class: Empire and Colony.

Empire as it is used to describe a politico-geographical formation extending back into antiquity is usually defined as a large territory of composite units  formed out of previously separate units, one that is heterogeneous and unequal, and characterized by a relationship of domination, a core-periphery structure which entails local administration, usually by colonized proxies (sometimes called “compradors”). Empire’s effects are manifold and include the creation of hybridized cultural practices and identities, and the massive flow-counterflow of people, plants, germs, goods, and ideas. Historical examples of Empire include the Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Habsburg, Persian and Mughal. If some of these Empires are unfamiliar to you then you have already keyed in to one of the most important features of Empire: it doesn’t last.

Empire is distinct from the term imperialism, which describes both a process and a set of ideas. It seems to have been first used with regard to Napolean III (1860s) and later with the policies of Disraeli, et al, who self-identified as imperialists. 

JA Hobson’s Imperialism identified it as the pursuit of new investment spaces, an idea developed by Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which held that monopoly capitalism and imperialism were identical. This formulation was widely influential even outside marxist circles, and gave rise to the notion that imperialism was largely a Western phenomenon. Still, others held that imperialism simply meant the domination or control of one people over others, particularly through the mechanism of the State, which allowed for a distinction between formal and informal imperialism. If the former signified absolute physical control, then the latter indicated something less direct though still powerful.

In general, most people these days think of the latter, informal imperialism, when they employ the term: a small group of nations dominates and exploits the rest of the world via state power, TNCs, the World Bank, etc. The radical view holds that informal imperialism (often, and confusingly, referred to as Empire) is more or less synonymous with US foreign policy, which shares certain features with the formal colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries though it is, perhaps, not so direct, instead using client regimes, as well as economic, diplomatic, and cultural forms of control. Military action, however, is never as government officials say in a deceptively homely metaphor “off the table”– as witnessed in Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan. (For a record of “foreign interventions” carried out by the US see Stephen Kinzer’s recent Overthrow or here.)


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