In the wake of the presidential election, we have all come face to face with two difficult truths. The West’s globalized liberal order is weak and fragmented—but so are the countries making up the Western world. Too few are convinced that the politics of nationalism offers safe harbor from the crisis of liberal globalism.
Yet the ranks of critics arrayed against the global order keep rising. With postmodern and anarcho-capitalist options generally considered to be farfetched or remote, it’s sensible in a certain way that the imperial ideal would return to tempt troubled minds.
According to some scholars, this turn has been a long time coming. “The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of political organization for the last 2,500 years,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in “Sapiens,” a 2015 New York Times bestseller. Today, almost everyone lives in a regime with some kind of imperial legacy or past—part of a shared history fueling a new global imperium.
“Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world,” Harari observes, “more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and managers are called to join the empire,” and more and more choose the global imperium over “their state and their people.”
Stop Attacking Our History
It’s easy to get the feeling that, under the circumstances, they don’t enjoy much real freedom in making that choice. After all, how can isolated individuals, so vulnerable to career and status pressure, presume to stand against the thrust of human history? Today’s global empire isn’t just a project engineered by Western elites, even though the strong influence of progressive historical theories help “the West” figure in so prominently. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, with no one force big or powerful enough to rival it.
But this is just the beginning. Smaller, ideological empires are competing against the global imperium, which turns out to strike us as too abstract and general to deserve our loyalty. Consider: it actually makes sense for so many of globalism’s critics to gravitate toward imperialist patterns of thinking too—the better to organize around as large a unit of identity as possible.
Despite the nationalistic rage currently being vented against private- and public-sector institutions perceived as selling out to the global empire, many Western nationalists are actually hungry to treat their imperialist history more as a poetic inspiration than a source of undying shame. Without carrying the best of that shared past into the future, they worry, they’ll be reduced to rumps of “rubes” and “racists” and picked off one pocket of resistance at a time. A primary grievance against multicultural and globalist officialdom is the divide-and-conquer strategy it employs (consciously or not) against such cultural and historical constructions as “the English-Speaking Peoples,” “our Judeo-Christian heritage,” or “Western civilization” itself.
A Kinder, Gentler Conception of Empire
True, as some conservatives have observed for decades, these constructions have their own internal tensions, and some conceal more than they reveal. (Alasdair MacIntyre, in “After Virtue,” inaugurates a contemporary line of traditionalist thinking opposed to neoconservative fusionists, who they see as subsuming the specifically Christian tradition into a template of “Western values” all too harmonious with capitalist consumerism.) But when going up against the worldwide imperium, what internally divides multinational traditions and culture structures can’t matter more than what unites them.
This same sort of logic reappears on the leftward end of the spectrum of political sensibility. To the chagrin of the social-justice left, neoliberals have already begun a strategic retreat from the exposed positions of unfettered economic globalism toward a kinder, gentler, and more parochial international Western configuration—one where “liberal values” and “social solidarity” can live in harmony, and the especially Anglophone history of empire can take on a surprisingly humane cast.
The American Revolution, Adam Gopnik muses in the New Yorker, might well have been “a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries.”
In the awakening imagination of imperialistic Western neoliberals, it’s the United States whose nationalism bred our supposedly characteristic sins—crimes of culture a more encompassing, more cosmopolitan, and less “democratic” political structure would have cut off at the root.
‘The Most Corporate of Societies’
Yet even the “woke” left has developed a more nakedly imperialistic sensibility, as diversity-and-inclusion vanguards have fanned out from the universities and powerfully penetrated corporate life. More is at work than the propagation of intersectional norms and standards throughout the multinational corporation—a strategy vectoring toward Harari’s definition of an empire as an order “characterized by flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite” that rules over “a significant number of distinct peoples, each possessing a different cultural identity and a separate territory.” The corporation itself is an institution that colonizes areas outside the state by setting up innumerably shifting but theoretically immortal franchises.
“The problem with neoliberalism is that it construes the idealized, individualist world of eighteenth-century rhetoric as a good approximation of twenty-first-century reality,” as David Ciepley explains in a new essay in American Affairs. “But in the nineteenth-century United States especially, a new corporate age was birthed as the corporate form made its final and most potent conquest, transforming the business firm and economy.”
Ours, he concludes, “is now the most corporate of societies, teeming with franchised governments large and small: towns, state governments, and the federal government (franchised by ‘the People’), but also and especially our myriad for-profit and non-profit corporations (business firms, churches, foundations, and other ‘non-governmental,’ yet actually quite governmental, associations).”
Neoliberals were unprepared for a hostile progressive takeover of the corporation on an anti-individualistic basis, but it has happened, enabling the most anti-imperialist major political faction in the West to assume a form competitive with its imperialistic rivals. The extension of the corporate-philanthropic complex throughout and beyond “the West” entails more of a cultural revolution than the mere thrust of history, on more parochially cosmopolitan terms than globalization alone.
The global imperium of Harari’s description, like the spread of worldwide equality Tocqueville described, is not responsible for (to take one example) the Fearless Girl statue. A spirit of progressive imperialism, competing with entangled neoliberal, classical liberal, conservative, and reactionary spirits, is.
To make sense of today’s crisis in domestic and international order, it’s not enough to think in terms of individualism versus communitarianism or nationalism versus globalism. Whatever our ideology or “tribe,” whatever our commitment or cause, the imperialistic moment is upon us, and it is not about to let go.