The debate over possible U.S. intervention in Syria has brought to the fore a diverse set of U.S. anti-imperialist idioms. The right-wing idiom, as I understand it, is irreducibly linked to questions of expense: the expenditure of money, the expenditure of blood. The center-left idiom mobilizes considerations of expense, but these occupy a subordinate position in the general economy of its critique. If the right worries over the loss of U.S. life and U.S. dollars, the center-left worries over the very construction of nonwhite life as losable and expendable, as well as the implication that non-NATO states’ enjoy but a tenuous sovereignty, one revocable at will by U.S. imperialists. What interests me here is that it is the nation-state that underwrites both the epistemology and political normativity of each idiom of critique. For both right and center-left, empire-building appears as a deviation from the natured (if not natural) course of being a nation—even if we know that hegemonic nations cannot not perform this deviation. But what if instead of casting empire as a (however inevitable) deviation from the script of the nation-state system, we understood empire in all its facticity, as something irreducible here and there in the world-system? To adopt this stance is already to begin asking why it is that empire can only appear as deviation. I want to suggest that the appearance of empire as deviation is an artifact of the deviousness of empire itself, a deviousness that corrupts our sense of the ontology of empire, a deviousness that constricts our understanding of the repertoires of power through which empire functions.
For, like, ever, empire has been the dominant state-form of the world-system. But in the mid-nineteenth century it became devious, was coded as deviant, and went into hiding. A wild claim, I know: the mid-nineteenth century witnessed extraordinary intensifications of empire-building on the part of both the U.S. and Great Britain. But the idiom of empire underwent a decisive shift, particularly in the realm of the emergent social sciences. This shift was long in the making, and if I had to mark a turning point—and, in my book, I do—I’d locate this point at 1776. Not simply because this was the year in which the 13 north American colonies declared independence, but because in this year Smith published his Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith was a keen observer of events in the colonies—he delayed publication of his tome so as to incorporate the latest news from north America—and his position, presented both in Wealth of Nations and in a minute he wrote for the Powers that Were, was an indictment of empire. Basically, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze: the extractive mechanisms of mercantilist policies had negative effects on national economic growth, the costs of war and defense were too high, the effects of empire on colonists in the Americas and the colonized in both Indies were devastating, and so on. Smith did not dream that Britain would, in any real world sense, unilaterally institute a world of free trade or (because “free trade” necessarily entailed the dismantling of mercantilist structures, the putative raison d’être of empire) free nations. But this dream would become reality in the epistemic structure of emergent social-scientific thought from Smith on. Smithian political economy was not necessarily normatively against empire; Torrens, a somewhat heterodox Smithian, was broadly for empire, whatever that might mean. But, at a deeper epistemological level, empire was being recast as a form of polity that inherently lacked the substantiality or reality of the nation-state:
It was because the colonies were supposed to be provinces of the British empire that this expense was laid out upon them. But countries which contribute neither revenue nor military force towards the support of the empire cannot be considered as provinces. They may perhaps be considered as appendages, as a sort of splendid and showy equipage of the empire. But if the empire can no longer support the expense of keeping up this equipage, it ought certainly to lay it down. (my emphasis; Wealth of Nations, Book V, ch. 3)
All empire a fake empire.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Smith’s coding of empire as removable equipage had become commonsense among political economists, the metropole’s literati, and increasingly the broader populace. A whole set of middlebrow publications pumped out articles decrying the expense of sovereignty and the flawed economy of mercantilist policies—the Edinburgh Review, say, whose economics writing was under the control for a time of J.R. McCulloch, the dumbest person to ever get to be publicly dumb, or The Economist, a publication noteworthy for maintaining the same stupid truisms for 170 years. McCulloch's Descriptive and Statistical Account of the British Empire (1847) blithely slices off all of what we think of as the "empire" today from his two volume account of the polity. It was also the era of the Anti-Corn Law League, of Cobden and Bright running through provincial towns with the message of “Free trade or bust!” What is important here is the fact that, even as social scientists, their Gradgrindian popularizers, and free-trade activists were advocating reforms with potentially massive effects on imperial subjects in the colonies, the default unit of analysis through which these imperial-scale reforms were discussed was the nation-state. There were no Little Englanders quite as loud as the globalizers of the mid-Victorian era: indeed, they called themselves “anti-imperialists.” This anti-imperial normativity had cognitively dissonant effects. My favorite: Earl Grey, in his two-volume apology for The Colonial Policy of Lord John Russell’s Administration (1853), is forced into a bizarre position of having to explain how, as a committed free-trader, his office of Colonial Secretary should even have existed at all. Empire had become so deviant that the head imperial administrator could only discuss his occupation in a spirit of bad faith—or through a racist rationale of extending humanity to the black masses of the world, one that codes empire as gratuitous gift. My point here is that the anti-imperialism that underwrote social-scientific epistemologies was forged without reference to the actual political desires of imperial subjects. That's because empire had been re-coded as a deviant socio-politico-economic object—not as a tense and taut reality within which imperial subjects in the colonial periphery might hope to co-decide on their own political futures.
In my own area of expertise, the British West Indies, the effects of the epistemic shift to anti-imperialism and the institutional shift to an anti-imperial free-trade empire were dramatic. In 1834/1838, Britain had built an emancipatory state, intending both to free enslaved humans in the colonies and, according to a particular modality, to incorporate ex-slaves into the empire as rights-bearing subjects; in 1846, Britain liberalized its sugar markets and instituted free trade with the massive slave economies of Brazil and Cuba, effectively tanking the economies of the colonies it had just emancipated. White and black creoles hated the turn to liberal globalization: they wrote novels and poems about it, they wrote scathing pamphlets and articles, and one Trinidadian mulatto even tried founding a socialist colony in Venezuela in response. But their concerns weren’t simply about economic effects. Rather, they were concerned that Britain’s understanding of empire through the watered-down, Economist-esque optic of political economy corroded the idea of empire as a polity—one in and for which they lived and labored, one that they had helped to build, one in which they considered themselves citizen-subjects. (Today, The Economist doesn't even remember that it once struggled to boot the West Indies out of the oikos of empire, and that this struggle was foundational to its identity. Four days ago, this on their website: "The Economist was founded in 1843 by James Wilson, a British businessman who objected to heavy import duties on foreign corn. Mr Wilson and his friends in the Anti-Corn Law League were classical liberals in the tradition of Adam Smith..." In the first issue, in fact, a critique of imperial structures supporting the West Indies preceded corn law talk. When Mr Wilson stood for Parliament, he was victorious against a quasi-creole, Matthew Higgins, who spent the better part of the '40s polemicizing against Mr Wilson's liberal ilk.) In a very real way, it was among colonial subjects that one can find explicitly pro-empire people in the era of liberal globalization (roughly, 1776-1888). Not because they couldn’t live autonomous lives, not because they did not desire to enjoy freedom, but because empire was the state-form through and in which autonomy and freedom materialized and made sense. In a world not yet entirely structured by the institutional form of the nation-state, why not stake a claim to empire? The index of nineteenth-century social science’s success in coding empire as deviant is the extent to which pro-imperial politics from subaltern subjects in the colonies still makes us squeamish. We want them to have wanted autonomy in nation-statist form, and so much of the scholarship I work with looks back on this period of creole history simply to find the roots of an emergent nationalism. The problem, though, is that so many of the good mid-Victorian British liberals wanted that too; even the arch conservative Disraeli could describe the colonies (the Canadas, in particular) as “millstones” about Britain’s collective neck, fit only to be cast off. Here, the nation-state was the form to which imperial subjects would devolve when empire flung them away.
The coding of empire as deviant was functional for an irreducibly imperial Britain. It enabled it to dismantle systems of support sustaining the economies of those in the peripheral zones of imperial formations past. It enabled Britain to proleptically code new sites of imperial incursion—which piled up throughout the anti-imperial era—as sites of imperial abandonment: we’re here just as long as it takes for us to get what we want, and, like, to civilize you too. It enabled Britain to avoid or neglect the claims made by subjects in the colonial world who felt entitled to a seat at the imperial table as co-deciders in the empire's future. When empire reappeared as a viable state-form with the close of the free-trade era and the dawn of neo-mercantilism, social-scientific epistemologies barely changed. There were some dissenters (like Sealy, maybe), but on the whole the nation-state continued to reign as the social sciences' durable, substantive, real object, its assumed reality, its a priori cognitive frame; empire continued to be posed as an aberration, even if it was an aberration coextensive with history itself. We still tend to see the 30 Years War of the 20th century as a war caused by imperialism, not as a war between empires. Empire was epistemically derealized even as it realized itself across the globe.
We live with this derealization today. Indeed, many of our critiques of a possible U.S. intervention into Syria rely upon this derealization. For many of us, empire reveals itself in the deviant excess of a positive act of power—a cruise missile, a bomb, boots on the ground. For others, it equally reveals itself in the architecture of the global economy—the WTO, the IMF, and so on. But imperial sovereignty engages other forms and tactics of power, too. Today, the mode of abandoning sites of incursion precedes the very act of incursion: empire forms an exit strategy before it even enters, as Randy Martin points out. Imperialism does not simply destroy forms of life; it also produces them while always already unbinding itself from them. I’m trying to locate but can’t find an article of Iraqis who lived near U.S. bases upon the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal. The affective ranges are complicated, but they map this dynamic of power. We didn’t fucking want you here, one Iraqi boy essentially says, but now that you’re here, now that you’ve produced a form of life to which I’m bound and in which my livelihood is bound up, what gives you the right to leave? Empire is the production of a state-form in which the complexity of that question cannot get any traction, in which its articulation has no institutional effects, in which the norms and epistemes underwriting U.S. culture can only transform that question into an alibi for empire at worst or as collaborationist bargaining at best. It is as much a form of inaction as action, of abandonment as incorporation, of neglect as making the world hyper-intelligible.
My point, basically, is that no matter what Obama does, empire is real. It is a fact, one that saturates imperial inaction as much as action, one that structures imperial intervention as much as non-intervention. We cannot possibly elaborate a radical political position vis-à-vis Syria if we do not see that any decision is already bound up within an imperial calculus, bound up within a world-system in which empire is a durable, structured, and decidedly not deviant fact. We need to get that bombing or not-bombing are both positively imperial acts. This might make U.S. passport holders pessimistic, hopeless even, and in certain ways it should: Imperial life cannot be lived rightly. My point isn’t to create an apologia for bombing—I’m against it wholeheartedly, whatever my good intentions or big heart mean here. Nor is my point to dissolve the real violence of empire into some kind of night where all the imperial cows are grey (which is how works like Burbank and Cooper’s on the historical facticity of empire are being perversely taken up). My point, rather, is that to code as deviant one response to the U.S.’s perennial question—to bomb or not to bomb?—is to disavow the falsity of imperial reality itself. It is at the moment of impossible choice—one U.S. citizens are all now making, at least in their heads—that the unbearable falsity of reality reveals itself. But we can only attune ourselves to this impossibility, feel this unbearability, and let the unliveability of the real charge us to realize new worlds if we are willing to ascribe to empire the substantive, non-deviant reality that it less-than-obviously possesses.