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Of Empire and the “Dark Ages”

Empire, says British historian Niall Ferguson in the journal Foreign Policy, is a good thing. Empire building is the right and moral thing to do.

“Anyone who dislikes U.S. hegemony should bear in mind that, rather than a multipolar world of competing great powers, a world with no hegemon at all may be the real alternative to U.S. primacy,” Ferguson argues. “Apolarity (power vacuums) could turn out to mean an anarchic new Dark Age: an era of waning empires and religious fanaticism; of endemic plunder and pillage in the world’s forgotten regions; of economic stagnation and civilization’s retreat into a few fortified enclaves.”~ Kevin Horrigan [1], St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Leaving aside for the moment the problem that modern people constantly misunderstand what an empire comprises, Mr. Ferguson’s dire predictions of a world gone the way of something like the Mad Max films are not just ludicrous but based on a silly, old view of Western history that even Mr. Ferguson, a genuinely respectable historian in his own right, cannot really be taking seriously. This is the view that the light of reason and civilisation went out with the collapse of the western empire, which was only really recovered from the long dark night of medievalism at the dawn of the Renaissance/early modern period. Nothing quite like that happened, but the terrifying image of a world sunk into darkness and ignorance serves Mr. Ferguson’s political project very nicely.

Let us understand what the “Dark Ages” (perhaps ranging c. 500-1000, give or take a few decades) involved, and what they did not. Take the charge of anarchy, for instance. By the time of the “Dark Ages,” the relative anarchy of the Great Migrations or barbarian invasions was subsiding and in the place of the much-celebrated empire there was extensive decentralisation to local and regional rulers. By this time, the worst and most fanatical of the Christian-pagan conflicts were over and the gradual conversion of Eastern Roman and European society was taking place. Most of the well-known religious fanaticism in Christian history on a grand scale was a product of the western high middle ages and the early modern era, and most of the worst episodes of this fanaticism came during the formation of strong consolidated kingdoms or nation-states at the expense of regional authorities.

By every standard except that of the strength of the state and long-distance trade, the “Dark Ages” (historians of this era now tend to refer to the general period as the late antique and early medieval periods) saw the gradual cultural, technological and even, gradually, economic progression and improvement of the lot of most of the people in Europe. Whether or not feudalism may be considered political “progress” depends very much on whether one believes that consolidated power represents an advance for humanity. Mr. Ferguson’s assumption that it is an advance very much colours his approach to a period in which such a universal hegemon was absent (and, of course, the extent of Rome’s hegemony stopped in the very land of Mesopotamia where our own has been found so desperately wanting).

The fact is that the world has gotten along just as well without a hegemon as with one (assuming that America really holds something like such a position right now), and perhaps better, and that most of the colossal wreckage of our last century came from one set of powers either trying to preserve their hegemony or seize that hegemony from those who possessed it. It is not a worthy or admirable goal for any people, and it usually only spells ruin for the would-be hegemon and everyone else. An American refusal to be the hegemon will not mean pandemonium and chaos in the world (no more than there already is, at any rate). It will, in all likelihood, force other regional powers to reassess their own responsibilities (if we must use this patronising and ridiculous language) for their own areas.

This process might involve some violence in certain parts of the world as regional powers impose their goals on neighbours, but this will generally be no more than the general, global violence resisting the general, global dominance of one state in perpetuity. Some pro-imperialist and interventionist talking heads often refer to a “global counterinsurgency” when speaking of terrorism. But there cannot be a global counterinsurgency if one ceases to claim practical lordship over the earth.

One of the greatest weaknesses of the hegemonist or imperialist/interventionist view is that it has so completely failed to take account of the fruits of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. (The other great weakness is the presumption that the world must fall apart without American, i.e., their tutelage.) The fruits of the fall of the USSR have been largely positive, at least in terms of international affairs. The erstwhile chaos and complexity of the world is simply a return to normality in international relations before the massive artifice of the two power blocs. Anarchy and economic exploitation broke out in Russia in the 1990s, thanks largely to the shock therapy it received from Western “friends,” but in most of the world the old Soviet areas of control and influence enjoyed more or less stable and relatively moderate governments. The wars in Yugoslavia are often held up as an example of the future nature of conflict in this century, but what this ignores is that these wars were largely the exception to the experience of states in the wake of the Cold War. It also ignores that the Balkan wars were in no small part manufactured and encouraged by outside powers to advance old, Great Power goals of dominance.

Mr. Ferguson’s answer for the relatively peaceful, post-Soviet world is more domination by the winning bloc to ensure…the peace and stability that already exist in much of the world. We heard much the same thing before the invasion of Iraq: we must invade to ensure regional stability! Then we heard that the stability in the Near East was the wrong kind of stability, and it needed to go anyway. But stability is simply the codeword for domination, and where the empire does not dominate there must, of necessity, be instability.