The Rise and Fall of Empires and the Case for Liberal Imperialism

Patrick Jory

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri / Empire / Cambridge, MA / Harvard University Press / 2000
Niall Ferguson / Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World / London / Penguin / 2004
Niall Ferguson/ Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire / New York / Penguin / 2004
Niall Ferguson / The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West /New York / Penguin / 2006

…I did not know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it… 
—George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant

 Not so many years ago, the publication of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000) generated considerable excitement among Thai academics. Seminars were organized to discuss it. An academic discussion of the book was featured prominently in an early issue of the left-leaning journal Fa Dio Kan. Political science and social science journals have devoted articles to it. A recent summary of the book and biography of its main author appeared on the popular on-line academic website Midnight UniversityEmpire is a highly theorized attempt to update Marxism for the conditions of late twentieth-century capitalism, complete with a heavy dose of Foucault’s theorizations about “biopower.” Hailed by its publisher, Harvard University Press, as a “new Communist Manifesto,” Empire’s argument in a nutshell is that globalization and the spread of capitalism today are so pervasive that any semblance of nation-states still enjoying sovereignty is rapidly fading. According to this argument, it would be wrong to believe the liberal argument (best encapsulated in Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man 1 that the world is living in an era of ever-increasing political and economic freedom. In fact, the new “empire” is far more ubiquitous than its nineteenth century ancestors, and its forms of domination more subtle. Whereas the old imperialism was centered in Europe, the new Empire is global in nature – “it is both everywhere and nowhere” (p.190).

Who controls this new empire? Not the United States and the West – though given their historic role in the development of capitalism, Western concepts and practices are naturally influential. Rather, Empire consists of “a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule.” Today, with the decline of the nation-state at the hands of global capitalism, “Empire is the sovereign power that governs the world” (p. xi). All is not lost, however. Negri and Hardt try to fan the fading embers of romantic Marxist notions of “resistance” and “struggle” beloved of social activists and NGOs around the world: “the spectacle of imperial order is not an ironclad world, but actually opens up the real possibility of its overturning and new potentials for revolution” (p. 324).


Interest in Empire coincided with growing scholarly attention in Thailand to the theory of postcolonialism. Strangely, postcolonialism seems to have gained increased popularity in Thai political science and social science circles in the new millennium, although it passed its heyday in Western academia in the 1980s and 1990s. Edward Said’s death in 2003 was one factor that helped stimulate renewed interest in his classic 1980 work, Orientalism. But how to explain this belated interest in theories of empire, imperialism, and postcolonialism in Thailand, which, as is well-known, was not itself a colony?

One reason is the translation lag, the fact that it often takes a decade or more for Western scholarship to be translated into Thai and hence gain a wider academic audience. A work such as Empire has virtually no impact if it remains in English. But a more compelling explanation is that renewed interest in empire, or imperialism, is a product of the neo-liberal international environment that developed after the great expansion of capitalism and liberal democracy following the end of the Cold War.

The implementation by Reagan and Thatcher of economic liberalization programs in the major Anglo-Saxon economies in the 1980s led to economic revival and renewed dynamism in these countries. Increased pressure was placed upon the developing world by Western countries, international financial institutions, and trade negotiations to implement neo-liberal orthodoxy – the so-called Washington consensus. This pressure led first to a nationalist backlash from the Left in many countries (symbolized by the “Battle of Seattle” protests against the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting) and later to rapid rates of economic growth in the world’s “emerging markets.” In the case of Thailand and Southeast Asia, the 1997-98 financial crisis produced a crisis of disillusionment with Thailand’s relatively liberal economic model and with globalization itself. The perceived failure of the US to come to Thailand’s rescue left many intellectuals embittered by what they perceived as the country’s abandonment by its erstwhile allies and its capitulation to Western cultural imperialism and consumerism. Yet a crisis is always an opportunity. It spurred left-wing academics, NGOs, royalists, and the monarchy to join forces in railing against American/“Western” neo-imperialism, thus laying the foundation for an alliance that would bear fruit in the Thaksin era. 2

Yet another factor is that the economic ascendancy of “the West” seemed to be translating into an increasingly assertive foreign policy. The victory of George W. Bush in the 2000 US presidential election, the rise of the “neo-conservatives” after September 11, 2001, and the subsequent US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, supported most prominently by fellow neo-liberal Britain and Australia, raised the specter of a new “liberal imperialism.” Seven months after the September 11 attacks, senior British diplomat Robert Cooper argued in a controversial article in the British newspaper The Observer that in order to deal with the chaos that exists in failed “premodern” states,

 what is needed is a new kind of imperialism, one compatible with human rights and cosmopolitan values: an imperialism which aims to bring order and organisation but which rests today on the voluntary principle… 3

The renewed economic and cultural dynamism of the West was now joined by an apparent willingness to use military force to impose its will internationally.

Finally, closest to home, this period also coincided with the rise to power of Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai government. For his enemies, Thaksin was a symbol of all of these strains of “empire”: his adherence to the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy; his alliance with the US in the war on terror (his handling of the violent insurgency in the south was seen as a corollary of Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq); and, more problematically, his claim to political legitimacy based on the ballot box. This latter principle enraged the Left as much as it scared the royalist establishment. The rabop Thaksin, as it became known among intellectuals and later the mass media, appeared to be a Thai manifestation of the global workings of Empire. Hence the oft-repeated charge by Thaksin’s enemies that he was “selling out the nation” (ขายชาติ). Empire, postcolonialism, and left-leaning theories of imperialism thus fell on fertile intellectual soil in the Thai social sciences in the early years of the new millennium. Anti-imperialism followed the politically correct orthodoxy that empires are bad, resistance and protest are good.


A book that has had a much less enthusiastic reception in Thai academia – indeed has hardly drawn any attention at all – is the similarly titled Empire (subtitled How Britain Made the Modern World, first published in 2003), by the prolific British historian, Neil Ferguson. 4 The reason Ferguson’s Empire has not been as welcome as the Empire of Negri and Hardt is easy to explain: Ferguson argues that British and American imperialism were, on balance, a “good thing.” His argument – presented in Empire, in subsequent books, and in numerous television documentaries – is one of the most compelling in favor of “liberal imperialism,” that is, a benign imperialism that makes the world safe for a liberal political and economic order.

Part of the difference in tone can be explained by the differing backgrounds of the authors. Negri (the main author of Empire) is an Italian Marxist intellectual and political activist who had been a member of numerous leftist groups (allegedly including the violent radical Red Brigades). He was convicted on a charge of insurrection against the state, and spent several years in jail. 5   Ferguson is a financial historian whose most acclaimed work is a two-volume history of the House of Rothschild in the nineteenth century. He holds concurrent academic positions at Oxford University, Harvard University, and Stanford University and has also taught at New York University. At the same time he is a contributing editor of the Financial Times and an adviser to the second largest hedge fund in the UK, GLG Partners. Like many of his fellow Scots, Ferguson’s ancestors and even his own immediate family benefited from the opportunities offered by the British Empire. Ferguson himself spent two of his childhood years in the former British colony of Kenya, where his father taught and practiced medicine shortly after independence. As he recalls, “my family was so imbued with the imperial ethos that its importance went unquestioned. Indeed, the legacy of the Empire was so ubiquitous and omnipresent that we regarded it as part of the normal human condition…” (p. xvi). It was only later, when he became a student at Oxford, that Ferguson was confronted by the alternative conception that had taken hold of academia by the 1980s – that the British Empire had in fact been “one of history’s Bad Things” (p. xvii). 6 He even debated against a motion at the Oxford Union that “This House Regrets Colonization.”

Empire is a popular history of the British Empire, the largest empire in history, which Ferguson argues was instrumental in the making of the modern world. It traces the history of the British Empire from its origins in piracy and slavery to the missionary zeal of the nineteenth century which attempted to civilize and Christianize the empire; through the development of the remarkable system of imperial administration whereby 900 British civil servants and 70,000 soldiers were able to rule 250 million Indians; to the apogee of the empire in the late nineteenth century when Britain enjoyed complete military superiority and control of the seas by which it imposed a pax Britannica over large parts of the world; and finally to the empire’s decline in the twentieth century. Provocatively, Ferguson argues that the end of the British Empire was caused far less by the national independence movements in its colonies, the usual subject of romantic national histories of the period, than by rival empires which forced it to engage in massively devastating wars, thereby bringing the empire to near bankruptcy. The real cause of the end of the British Empire was therefore economic; following the end of the Second World War Britain was simply no longer able to sustain the costs of empire. With the added pressure of the United States’ ingrained hostility to British imperialism, Britain was forced into decolonization from the late 1940s through the 1960s.

Empire is also an attempt to respond to common critiques of imperialism. The era in which British imperial power reached its zenith, from the second part of the nineteenth century to around 1930, he refers to as a period of “Anglobalization” (p. xxiv). A reassessment of this era may, therefore, have lessons for today’s era of globalization. Ferguson challenges both the Marxist and nationalist critiques that dominate academic studies of imperialism, as well as the less popular liberal critique of imperialism, which views the coercive features of imperial rule as having distorted the operation of free markets. He raises the question whether free markets and the public goods that they bring (assuming one believes in free markets) can be achieved without empire. Or, as Ferguson puts it more succinctly, “can you have globalization without gunboats?”

What do we owe to the British Empire, which once covered a quarter of the world’s population, spanned a similar proportion of the earth’s surface, and lasted for three hundred years? Among its achievements must be included the great scientific and technological advances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the railways and telegraph system, the Common Law, the global system of free trade and liberal capitalism, the values of religious freedom, the movement toward gender equality, and most importantly, political notions of liberty. In this respect Ferguson forcefully argues that the British Empire can be credited as having played a major role in making the modern world. What would this world have looked like if the British Empire had not existed? The British imperialists had many competitors: not just European rivals – French, Dutch, Russians, Belgians, and, most fearsomely, Germans – but also Ottomans, Chinese, and later Japanese. Would the world have been better off if one of these competing imperial powers had ruled instead of the British? Ferguson likes to pose such counterfactual questions not only because they are impossible to answer but because posing them confronts us with the contingent nature of history, the fact that history could have been something other than what “actually happened.” 7

It is easy to criticize this apparently rosy view of Empire. However despite his critics’ claims that he does not pay enough attention to imperialism’s sins, Ferguson does include accounts of the British role in the slave trade (as well as British attempts to end it), the massacres of native populations and their dispossession, commercial greed and exploitation, religious bigotry, racism and racial discrimination, and instances of appalling maladministration, in particular those that led to the infamous Irish potato famine in the 1840s and the famines in Bengal in the latter nineteenth century in which millions perished. However, Ferguson’s argument is that, on balance, the empire’s credits outweigh its sins. And in any case, would other empires, or even the native rulers who were overcome and surpassed by the empire, have done better?

The larger question Ferguson posed in Empire, whether a liberal political and economic order can be maintained without some form of empire, is revisited and definitively answered in his next book, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. 8 This book, a history of both America’s international adventures and its political economy, is more polemical in tone than Empire. It was written at the time of the US invasion of Iraq and the great controversy that it caused. Here Ferguson emphatically and provocatively argues the case for a “liberal empire”:

I have no objection in principle to an American empire. Indeed, a part of my argument is that many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule. But what the world needs today is not any kind of empire. What is required is a liberal empire – that is to say, one that not only underwrites the free international exchange of commodities, labor, and capital but also creates and upholds the conditions without which markets cannot function – peace and order, the rule of law, non-corrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies – as well as provides public goods, such as transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools, which would not otherwise exist… (p. 2)

Unlike the majority of European writers who have written on this subject I am fundamentally in favour of empire. Indeed I believe that empire is more necessary in the twenty-first century than ever before. The threats we face are not in themselves new ones… The old, post-1945 system of sovereign states, bound loosely together by an evolving system of international law, cannot easily deal with these threats because there are too many nation-states where the writ of the ‘international community’ simply does not run. What is required is an agency capable of intervening in the affairs of such states to contain epidemics, depose tyrants, end local wars and eradicate terrorist organizations…” (p.24)

colossus Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly for critics of US foreign policy, Ferguson finds America lacking in its willingness to fulfill this role of “agency,” and herein lies the heart of Colossus’ argument. America is strangely reluctant to view itself as an empire and consequently fails to act accordingly. Ferguson claims that “Americans themselves lack the imperial cast of mind. They would rather consume than conquer. They would rather build shopping malls than nations.” Since its founding in the late eighteenth century the United States has tended to deny its status as an imperial power. This is where America differs from Britain in its heyday. In Ferguson’s opinion, America can learn from the history of the British Empire. The lesson is encapsulated in the imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling’s infamous appeal to the US in 1899 during its intervention in the Philippines. Though dated and hopelessly politically incorrect in its language, the problematic for a nation aspiring to empire is the same for America today as it was when Kipling first wrote it:

 Take up the White Man’s Burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons in exile
To serve your captive’s need… 

Take up the White Man’s Burden
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard…

For Ferguson, America’s problem is that no sooner does it take up this “burden” than it lets it down again. Compared to Britain its best sons are less willing to be bound in “exile”, and the country less prepared to reap the “blame” and “hate” that is the reward. The irony that runs through Colossus is that America is, for all intents and purposes, an empire with a long tradition of anti-imperialism that originates from its own birth as a nation in revolution against the British Empire. Since its arrival as a great power on the international scene following the conflagration of World War I, America has consistently promoted the freedom and self-determination of nations. Unlike Britain, the US for the most part preferred not to take formal political control of other nations. Where it felt it was necessary to intervene, it preferred to send in troops, implement “regime change,” organize elections, and withdraw. To Ferguson, America is “an empire, in short, that dares not speak its name. It is an empire in denial.” This empire is less secure than its critics might think, but the real threat to America’s empire – to the extent that it has one – is likely to come not from without but from within. Americans today appear to lack “the will to power” (p.29).

Yet from its birth, the United States had an expansionist agenda. Thomas Jefferson even referred to America as an “empire of liberty.” The first part of Colossus details the extension of the American frontier across the continent, overcoming and displacing the Native American populations as it went. Later the US began to acquire overseas possessions in the Pacific with the aim of securing a base from which to commercially penetrate Asia – Guam, Samoa, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and, perhaps most controversially, the Philippines. The annexation of the Philippines is often regarded as the high point of US imperialism and out of character with usual US practice. It provoked considerable domestic opposition, including from the great literary figure Mark Twain and the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The Democratic Party put Filipino independence on their party platform for the 1900 elections. And in 1901, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt is said to have privately considered withdrawing from a war that was not only unpopular at home (over 4000 American servicemen had been killed), but financially debilitating.

The consistency of the United States’ “imperial dilemma” of over one hundred years ago with that of today is striking. Ferguson shows the following similarities between the US intervention in the Philippines and the invasion of Iraq in 2003:

    1. Impressive initial military success
    2. A flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment
    3. A strategy of limited war and gradual escalation of forces
    4. Domestic disillusionment in the face of protracted and nasty conflict
    5. Premature democratization
    6. The ascendancy of domestic economic considerations
    7. Ultimate withdrawal. (p.48)

 Soon after the Philippines’ annexation, elections were held that produced an Assembly made up mostly of Filipino nationalists advocating independence. By 1916 the US had promised the Philippines independence “as soon as a stable government can be established.” The Philippines had soured America on European-style colonial rule. In Central America, the Caribbean, and Latin America – its exclusive sphere of interest according to the Monroe Doctrine – the US preferred to use economic and military power rather than formal colonial rule to intervene when it felt its interests to be threatened, or, as stated more diplomatically by Woodrow Wilson, where there was a need “to ensure orderly processes of just government”.

Ferguson characterizes US foreign policy during the twentieth century as “the imperialism of anti-imperialism,” that is, even while their country’s economic and military power was growing and their global influence expanding, Americans thought of themselves as a fundamentally anti-imperialist nation. In fact, while the US was frequently willing to intervene in its own back yard, there was a deep current of isolationism running through US foreign policy with regard to the “Old World.” The event that propelled the US to intervention in European affairs and great power status was World War I. Its intervention a major factor in its allies’ victory, the US emerged from this war in something similar to the position of Britain in 1815 after the post-Napoleonic devastation of Europe. President Wilson had the moral authority to play the major role in reshaping Europe’s map amidst the wreckage of dynastic empires in central and eastern Europe and he based his work on the idea of national “self-determination.” This principle informed the “Fourteen Points” of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and underlay the creation of the League of Nations which sought – and ultimately failed – to rewrite the rules of international relations. Taken to its furthest extent, the principle of national self-determination would spell the end of the multinational empires in Europe – and later the empires of the colonized world. In the end America itself failed to join the League of Nations and retreated into isolation.

America’s re-entry into the affairs of Europe had to wait until World War II, when President Roosevelt expended great amounts of energy to convince Americans to enter another European war to fight another would-be empire – Nazi Germany. Following that war much of Europe was devastated and its economies almost destroyed. While the US came to the economic aid of its Western allies with the Marshall Plan, it simultaneously hastened the disintegration of the British, French and Dutch colonial empires. Roosevelt’s distaste for European imperialism was deeply ingrained. Despite his alliance with the British and French during the war, Roosevelt remained adamantly opposed to European imperialism, much to the chagrin of Churchill who derisively commented that the “President’s mind was back in the American War of Independence, and he thought of the Indian problem [the issue of Indian independence] in terms of the thirteen colonies fighting George III” (p. 67). However, the end of the war brought a new imperial threat as the Soviet Union’s Red Army occupied eastern and central Europe, supported the communist takeover of the states in this region, and transformed them into Soviet satellites. America’s confrontation with the Soviet Union – a 40-year Cold War that started with the declaration of the Truman Doctrine – was conceived as another struggle against imperialism.

Colossus was written in the wake of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, a period that marked the high point of “neoconservatism” in the White House and the wider debate in the diplomatic and foreign policy community about “liberal imperialism.” This “imperial moment” has since passed. After the Iraq debacle, America’s plans to democratize the Middle East have been shelved indefinitely. Perhaps even more importantly, as Ferguson points out, the very ability of the US to finance a liberal empire is in jeopardy. Even before the current financial crisis, America had become a “debtor empire” (p.279). In this respect America’s current difficulties bear more than a passing resemblance to the predicament of the British Empire in its last days.

Ferguson’s argument in Colossus appears more and more to have been borne out by subsequent events. In the aftermath of its difficulties in Iraq and the huge pressure of world opinion, the US seems to have all but abandoned its plans for a more assertive liberal empire. It has suffered a debilitating loss of confidence not only in its own power to bring about transformation toward a global liberal political order, but also about the very morality of such a mission. The scenes from Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay haunt not just Iraqis and the world’s Muslims but also Americans – perhaps more so. The current popularity in foreign policy circles of “soft power,” that is, the projection of US power through the promotion of American values and ideals rather than military might, in Ferguson’s view, may be a sign of America “going soft” (p.19).


Empire has therefore gone quickly back out of fashion. Perhaps for this reason, the tone of Ferguson’s next book, also on the theme of empire, is a lot darker. In The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, Ferguson examines what happens when empires fail and break apart. 9 The subject of the book is the extreme violence of the twentieth century, in particular the period from the turn of the century until the 1950s, which Ferguson claims was perhaps the bloodiest period in all human history. According to some estimates, the number of people who died as a result of “organized violence” during this period may amount to as many as 188 million (p.649). Ferguson argues that the common explanations of twentieth century violence – the Great Depression of the 1930s, the rise of the radical new ideologies of communism and fascism, bitter class conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the rise of the modern nation-state and its greatly increased powers of social control – are inadequate. He sees the violence as primarily caused by three factors: ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and the decline and breakup of empires. A secondary argument critiques the common assumption that World War II ended in triumph for “the West.” In fact, the longer lasting “War of the World” not only spelt the end of the great European colonial empires but marked the beginning of the end of the West’s hegemony over the world.

In today’s era of nation-states, it is easy to forget that prior to World War I most of the world was divided into empires. While the stirrings of nationalism and liberalism in Europe had been mostly contained by the dynastic empires for a century after the French Revolution, the First World War signaled their death knell. The empires that had dominated most of central and eastern Europe collapsed: the Russian Tsarist empire, the German empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the remains of the decaying Ottoman empire. The end of the Second World War was followed by a second round of imperial collapse: the resurgent German empire under the Nazis and the short-lived Japanese empire in East Asia, as well as the Asian and African colonial empires of the British, Dutch, French, and Belgians. A third imperial collapse occurred with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the birth of new independent states from the former socialist republics, and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Most of today’s two hundred or so nation-states are the children of these empires.

The problem posed by the disintegration of these empires was that they were, by nature, multi-ethnic. The resulting power vacuum, coupled with the rise of extreme racial nationalism, the displacement caused by economic volatility, and the fears and antagonisms this caused between racial groups, frequently descended into genocidal violence. The regions where the killings were most widespread and merciless tended to be at the interstices between empires, where such conditions were most acute. The area which saw a disproportionate amount of killing in the “War of the World” was eastern and central Europe, which lay at the intersection between the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires. And the target of much of the killing was the Jews, who for centuries had formed a minority population throughout this region. (Seventy percent of the world’s Jewish population lived along this European geopolitical fault-line.) Jewish pogroms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century grew in frequency and regularity – in an era, ironically, when Jewish intermarriage with non-Jews was on the rise. The killings culminated in the Holocaust, to which Ferguson gives a human face by including many graphic accounts of the rapes, mutilations, and brutality with which such huge numbers were killed.

While the genocide of the Jews was the most extreme example, there were many other massacres against groups in collapsing empires who were judged to be racially inferior. The first modern genocide had in fact taken place three decades earlier, during the death throes of the former Ottoman empire, when over one million Armenians are believed to have been killed. In the words of the American consul in Smyrna at the time, the Turkish killings of Armenians that took place from 1915-18 “surpasse[d] in deliberate and long-protracted horror and in extent anything that has hitherto happened in the history of the world” (p.177). An Austrian diplomat claimed that the aim of the killings was the “extermination of the Armenian race.” Besides the Armenians, Greeks were also killed or expelled from the lands of the new nation-state of Turkey that emerged from the corpse of the Ottoman empire. Fighting on the Eastern Front between Russians and Germans was similarly a war of annihilation in which prisoners were rarely taken. And some of the most vicious violence in the east was directed against Poles, whose young state was divided up and swallowed by the Nazis and the Soviets. Poles were killed in the hundreds of thousands by Nazis, Soviets, and Ukrainian nationalists (p. 456).

At the other end of the Eurasian landmass, another borderland between empires saw intense fighting as the Japanese empire extended its reach into the Chinese mainland. The racial basis underlying the violence was starkly similar to that of Europe. Racial beliefs help explain the extreme violence of the infamous “Rape of Nanking” in 1937, when Japanese troops entering the Chinese capital went on a orgy of killing in which over 100 000 civilians were murdered. As one Japanese officer explained to a journalist at the time: “Frankly speaking, you and I have diametrically different views of the Chinese. You may be dealing with them as human beings, but I regard them as swine. We can do anything to such creatures” (p.477). Similiarly, the Chief of Staff of the Japanese Forces in North China in 1937 referred to the Chinese people as “bacteria infesting world civilization” (p. 473).

Besides the huge scale of killings, the “War of the World” was characterized by “ethnic cleansing.” This involved the displacement of whole groups of people from their ancestral homelands based purely on their ethnicity (or “race”), in order to construct more racially pure states. The term was coined during the brutal war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but in fact the process started in Europe long before. It involved the uprooting and forced migration of tens of millions of people to new states organized on the principle that states should be made up of citizens of the same nationality.

Finally, it is worth recalling that the collapse of empire, both of the dynastic and colonial varieties, and the globalized world in which they flourished, was quite sudden. Today’s era of globalization can be compared to that existing at the turn of the twentieth century – shortly before the beginning of Ferguson’s “War of the World.” He quotes John Maynard Keynes’ famous recollection of life for the English gentleman in 1901, first published in an article in The Times after the end of World War I, which had brought a sudden end to the era of imperialist globalization:

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such a quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend…

 He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could dispatch his servant to the neighbouring office of a bank for such a supply of precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference… 

[A man in 1901] regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous and avoidable…The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice… (p. 4)

 The descent from the “paradise” of globalization to the horrors of the “War of the World” was swift, and serves as a reminder of how rapidly things can change when empires decline and fall.

 We have, therefore, two visions of empire: Negri and Hardt’s empire of capitalist domination versus Ferguson’s argument for “liberal imperialism” – and a warning of what happens when empires clash and collapse.

 For Thai academics, perhaps it is time to reassess the notion of empire as a form of political and economic order. Many of the country’s current leading public intellectuals were trained overseas in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when social science departments in the Anglo-American academic world were heavily influenced by a variety of theories of anti-imperialism: classic Marxism, post-colonialism, and Third-World nationalism (with a good dose of anti-Americanism). Postmodernism was later added to the anti-imperialist academic’s repertoire. This was the intellectual culture that many Thai graduate students imbibed while completing their PhDs. On their return to Thailand, where liberal principles have never been firmly established since the overthrow of the Absolute Monarchy in 1932, their critiques of Thai society – albeit Marxist, postcolonial, nationalist, or postmodern – were strangely in line with the conservative political culture that has entrenched itself since the late 1970s. The leftist-royalist hold on Thai academia has been clearly on display since the outbreak of the current political crisis in late 2005, with many academics openly expressing disparagement of democratic elections, contempt for the electorate, and deep distrust of free market (though not royalist business elite-mediated) capitalism and globalization.

Understanding of European imperialism suffers in Thailand because it has become a convenient political scapegoat in the present. For Thai Marxists (who follow Lenin’s theory of imperialism), the period is characterized as the height of capitalist exploitation and injustice. Royalists, on the other hand, continue to earn great political mileage by claiming it was the monarchy that saved Thailand from the scourge of foreign domination suffered by most of its Asian neighbors. This caricature of an evil Western imperialism has, up to the present, provided a convenient “other” for official definitions of “Thainess.” More importantly, the manipulation of this caricature of the colonial era by successive political regimes has done much to legitimize the illiberal political order since the era of Sarit and the restoration of the monarchy after 1957. More recent theories of on-going Western or American neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism, which also find enthusiastic adherents among left-leaning and royalist intellectuals today, have had much the same effect. Liberal ideas can be caricatured as foreign and culturally inappropriate, merely the latest in a long series of attempts by “the West” to dominate Thailand and seize its “independence.” What the intellectual discourse about imperialism in Thai academia suggests, among other things, is the weakness of the liberal voice in the university system.

If we rethink Western imperialism (and more broadly “Western influence”) as leaving a more mixed legacy – including the spread of such principles as equality and freedom of expression, representative political institutions, internationalism, and modernity more generally – we may start to question the view that it was the indigenous political order that has preserved Thailand’s “independence.” Perhaps then it may be possible to objectively compare the costs and benefits of Western imperialism with that form of political domination with which Thais are much more familiar: absolute monarchy. 

 Patrick Jory
Regional Studies Program, Walailak University

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 8-9 (March 2007). Culture and Literature

This article was first published (in Thai) in the Oct-Dec 2008 issue of the Thai literary journal Aan [“Read”] [see]. The Thai translation was done by Phongloet Phongwanan and Warisa Kitikhunseri. The author is grateful to the editor of Aan, Ida Aroonwong, for her permission to have the translation republished in the Kyoto Review. 




  1. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).
  2. See Thongchai Winichakul, “Nationalism and the Radical Intelligentsia in Thailand,” Third World Quarterly 29, no. 3, 2008: 575-591, and “Toppling Democracy,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 38, no. 1, February 2008: 1-37.
  3.  Robert Cooper, “Why We Still Need Empires,” The Observer, Sunday, 7 April 2002.
  4. Niall Ferguson. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Penguin, 2004).
  5. The accusation that Negri had been a member of the Red Brigades was never proven, nor was it established that he had ever been involved in committing a violent act.
  6. his is a whimsical reference to a famous British satire on the learning of history, 1066 and All That, which mocks the model of learning history at schools by dividing events up into the “Good Things” and the “Bad Things”; W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That (London: Methuen 1930).
  7. See “Introduction” in Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, ed. Niall Ferguson (Cambridge: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 1-90.
  8. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (New York, Penguin Press, 2004).
  9. Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).