Niall Ferguson
New York: Basic Books
A Review by Immanuel Wallerstein

After the cataclysm of Sept. 11, 2001, it suddenly became fashionable to talk about “empire” as a description of the US role in the world-system. For the fifty years preceding that, only critics from the left used the concept, under the name of ‘imperialism.’ But now, many so-called neo-cons have assumed the word and sought to give it a very positive spin. The invasion of Iraq by the United States, seconded by Great Britain, has made the debate more than merely theoretical; it has made it timely for both the supporters and the critics of the US action. In a spate of books and articles, comparisons have been made between the US and the Roman Empire, and more plausibly between the US and the British Empire. But what political conclusions are we supposed to draw from these analogies?

Niall Ferguson, a British historian who teaches financial history in the United States, takes up the challenge with his new book, entitled quite simply Empire. The book seeks to tell the story of “the rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power” in just under 400 pages, which are lavishly well illustrated in a coffee-table style. It tells the story of the modern world from a relentlessly ‘Britannocentric’ view. Ferguson combines historical narrative with intellectual and political judgments, which he is forthright in offering us. The book started life as a TV series, which was no doubt fun to watch.

The book combines justification, nostalgia, and a small dash of whining. Niall Ferguson seems to have no doubt that the British world order was the best possible thing for the modern world as a whole, despite the fact that its record was not “unblemished” (358). The British, he tells us, combined commerce, conquest, some “evangelical imperialism” (125), and most importantly “there had also to be colonization” (56) to create an unparalleled system that bequeathed a large part of the world with nine distinctive features of Great Britain: the English language, English forms of land tenure, Scottish and English banking, the common law, Protestantism, team sports, the “night watchman” state, representative assemblies, and the idea of liberty. The last of these, he tells us, is “the most distinctive feature of the Empire” since “whenever the British were behaving despotically, there was always a liberal critique of that behavior from within British society”

Ferguson is ready to admit that not all was perfect. Indeed, he is even ready to tell us a few horror stories of colonial rule. However, each time he does this, he hastens to give us the “better than” argument. The British were at least better than the Germans, the Japanese, the Belgians, the Dutch, even the French. In the 1970’s, Georges Marchais, then Secretary-General of the French Communist Party, on the defensive because of the growing evidence of Stalinist misdeeds in the Soviet Union, came up with the ultimate justification - the Soviet experience, he said, was “globally positive.” This is essentially Ferguson’s defense of the British Empire: “Without the spread of British rule around the world, it is hard to believe that the structure of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established in so many different economies around the world” (358).

As we move on through the historical story, the tone of nostalgia becomes increasingly strong, while the resentment about those who ended this idyll increases. He won’t credit the anti-colonial movements with doing it. No agency for them. Their nationalism was “fuelled not by the impoverishment of the many but by the rejection of the privileged few” (218). It seems Great Britain could have easily handled the Gandhis of this world, were it not for the real spoilers, “alternative empires” (294) - that is, Germany in particular.

And here’s where the whining comes in. “In the end, the British sacrificed her [sic!] Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not this sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins?” (355). The question is, who is it who doesn’t appreciate Britain’s sacrifices for world liberty? Ferguson doesn’t say so, but the subtext is that it is the United States. After all, “the wartime alliance [of 1941-45] with the US was a suffocating embrace; but it was born of necessity” (345).

Ostensibly, the book is about the lessons the US can draw from the history of British world order. For, says Ferguson, today there is “only one power capable of playing an imperial role in the modern world, and that is the United States” (367). But there are crucial differences between British and US imperialism - three major ones to be exact. Britain exported capital, the US imports it. Britain exported people, the US imports them. And “Britain in its heyday was able to draw upon a culture of unabashed imperialism…,whereas the US… will always be a reluctant ruler of other people” (368). The US is, he says, “an empire… that dare not speak its name. It is an empire in denial” (369).

Ferguson offers us little hope that the US will rise to its appointed imperial role. He seems to have two attitudes towards this. On the one hand, it is disastrous for the world, at least for “liberal capitalism,” since he tells us in the introduction that the crucial question for our times is “can you have globalization without gunboats?” (xxiv). Given the space he devotes to the crucial role of the Maxim gun, one gathers he doesn’t think so. On the other hand, I hear a bit of Schadenfreude here. However powerful the colonial upstarts get, they cannot really match the natural rulers of the world, the British. So, hail Britannia, but sadly, farewell Britannia. And then, perhaps, farewell the world?

In the lead up to the invasion of Iraq - and especially with the difficulties the US has encountered since - there is a renewed interest in the historical experience of past imperial efforts.
Copyright 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization