what is an “empire”?

Since the inception of this blog there has been a lot of talk about “empire.”

Now, discourse about “empire” is anything but unique to this blog, for it has been a common theme in theological discussion for a long time now.

I am aware that this language about empire is not familiar to everybody. Indeed a number of people have recently asked me the question, “what is (an) empire?”

The term empire is often used by people, especially those with a heightened social conscience, to simply denounce systems and institutions that they find dissatisfactory. Such a use of the term is rather haphazard and imprecise, leaving it vulnerable to baseless usage. Equally common is for people to define empire according to its characteristics (violence, economic exploitation, propaganda), but such characteristics generally tend to represent more a description than a definition, and are helpful but not sufficient.

There must be a standard by which to define an “empire.” How is it different to simple hegemony? What made the Roman Empire an empire? Are Disney, or Microsoft, or Goldman Sachs to be considered empires? Why, or why not?

In his fantastic book, “Come Out, My People!” Wes Howard-Brook lists what he claims are the major elements of empire:*

1. Imperial boundaries – there is a distinction between imperial and non-imperial space.

2. Dissolution of equality – subordinates are considered to be “client states” or “satellites.” In other words international relations are not between equals, but between a “centre” and a “periphery.”

3. The existence of most empires has been due to a mix of chance and contingency – most empires do not arise due to “will to empire” (imperialism) or a grand strategy, but rather a series of circumstances that lead to increased power and control of people and/or territories.

4. The capacity for reform and regeneration – empires do not need to necessarily hold to the qualities of the original situation in which it was conceived. Often they become independent of the values/qualities of the founder(s).

5. Inability to remain neutral in relation to the powers in its sphere of influence – empires will retaliate if there is an attempt at independence or non-participation on the part of its subordinates.

Such elements should hopefully help us understand empire beyond a merely derogatory label. It could be said that, according to this analysis, an empire is: a territory ruled from a specified centre that holds power over varied peoples, land and resources by gaining and maintaining control by way of military, economic and/or ideological influence primarily over elites, who in turn hold sway over others who have no access to imperial power.

Such a definition is obviously in need of more thought than this post can provide, though it is precise enough that not all forms of power fit into it. Australian states, for example, are not empires since Australian state governments do not have control over varied peoples and land through military, economic or ideological means, and most people within their spheres of influence have at least some access to power at the very least through the mechanism of democratic voting.

Another example of a non-empire might be Disney. Though it cements a twisted ideology of entertainment, “beauty” and consumption, thus captivating imaginations (pause for a second and reflect on the etymology of that word, captivating), Disney does not to my knowledge control vast international territories, though it certainly supports the authority of empire by perpetuating certain ideological values.

The Roman Empire, on the other hand, was clearly named so because the authorities held imperial power – a large international territory ruled from a specified centre wielding power over varied peoples, land and resources largely through military, economic and ideological compulsion over elites, who in turn held power over lower classes.

Can such an understanding of empire be applied to any contemporary institutions?

No doubt. Multinational corporations, organisations and governments who hold vast amounts of power in foreign (often developing world) territories often wrest access to people, land and resources (read profit) by way of military brutality, economic heavy-handedness or imagination-sucking ideological discourse amongst people with no access to imperial power.

Think of the U.S. utilising military and economic power in order to secure access to oil and other natural resources in the developing world, or crushing democratically elected leftist governments, or intervening militarily to ensure favourable trade outcomes.

Think of multinational resource companies forcing their way onto land, often through political lobbying power, in order to secure access to coal, oil, minerals etc. and thus robbing the local population of their national wealth.

Think of the IMF insisting on export-oriented growth in developing countries. This has led to a rise in cash crops resulting in a fall in food production while the best land is used to grow tobacco, cotton, flowers, tea and coffee for the developed world. The current situation in Somalia is just one example of the effects of such capitalistic “development.”

The list could go on of course, but pointing out empires is only part of the struggle—we must, as followers of Jesus and citizens of his kingdom (i.e. empire), imagine alternatives to the elements and characteristics of empire.

But this is a whole other matter which necessitates a whole other forum.


* Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 8.

Posted on August 17, 2011, in Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Good to think through the question of Empire… A couple of things I would add to the discussion. Firstly, to throw the cat among the proverbial, it is arguable that we don’t technically live in a time of ’empire.’ What is unique about the current global situation is that political power does not overlap with the economy. Immanuel Wallerstein and others argue that there is today a ‘world-system’ and a ‘world-economy,’ but no single ‘state’ controls this in an ‘imperial’ sense. There are core and peripheral economic zones and nation-states that legally pave the way for capital in each – these states are the most coherent forces in shaping this reality but they do not have imperial powers – the nation-state system is designed to avoid this (for good and sinister reasons!). Also, it is probably more accurate to say of empires that they have a centre and ‘tributaries.’ Indeed, I would say that your explanation of the Rome as an empire is clearer than the 5 points of Howard-Brook (as interesting as they are)! Anyway, these distinctions shouldn’t lessen our concern about political power relations – they are real and can be mind-boggling unjust. They may also take different forms to the past, i.e., ‘soft power.’ It’s important to recognise that there is a difference between the empires of the Bible and the political/economic situation of today: namely, the capitalist mode of production that exists globally irrespective of individual political power. And, as we are now seeing, even a socialist/communist state can move to the centre of this capitalist world-system. This means, for those who wish to speak of Biblical ideas of ’empire,’ the same hermeneutic process of acknowledging a different context to the original Biblical one must be faced, and the ‘core’ of the Biblical message ‘translated’ into this new context. Which I think is what you’re really advocating anyway… It may well involve speaking out against multi-nationals and other ‘powers.’ And all of your examples are pretty spot on! But we have to think and argue this through. Although they didn’t live with the destruction of the environment, and thus didn’t have to consider the question of sustainability, it is worth remembering that Marx and Engels applauded capitalism as a vital stage of building human prosperity and as a means to overcome the entrenched privilege of the aristocracies – the traditional beneficiaries of ’empire.’ Complex huh!

  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the comment; as per usual you lift the conversation to new heights.

    I agree with what you are saying, though I wonder what the implication is of the fact that the Roman Empire was hardly a world-empire by modern standards. It was fairly localised inasmuch as it was centred in Europe and Western Asia (still a large territory of course, but nonetheless far from global).

    I suppose I am getting at the point that empire is not necessarily global, a point to which you have alluded.

    I also wonder about the magnitude of the difference between political power relations now and then. An example is the soft power of the Roman Empire; certainly it utilised powerful forms of ideology, story, propaganda etc. etc. How different are they? Is perhaps technology the major distinction as opposed to, say, overt methodological choices (military, economics etc.)?

    Answer: I dunno.


  3. Heya Matt,

    Yes, that’s right, the thing is there has never been a ‘global’ or ‘world-empire.’ Empires existed but they were always bounded, and outside of that lay the “barbarians,” oh, and a whole lot of people they didn’t even know existed… The power the Romans held over people within their empire, however, even if it was geographically limited, was immense and totalising – hence the concept of conquered peoples having to offer tribute and economy being oriented to pillage and the needs of the polis at the heart of the empire. It is no accident that Hitler sought to invoke the Reich as a new imperial eagle over Europe. The Japanese could happily have the rest for their own empire too. The Romans had very high opinions of their law and civic virtue, but I don’t think it operated as ‘soft power’ cause phalanxes of troops were enough. Hence you could let the Jews worship their strange God ’cause at the end of the day there was no way they could effectively rebel. For the rest, the Romans didn’t need to ‘attract’ people to Zeus… You could say things like ‘crucifixions’ were designed to have social psychological effects, but the Romans didn’t rely on them in the way capitalist countries are forced to use attraction through culture, marketing, the english language, luring by contracts, etc…

    I guess the point is that power has become diffuse, de-localised, and detached from states. Colonialism hid this from view. The second half of the 20th C has revealed it as the greatest ‘Superpower’ in global history was unable to shift to a footing of empire -even though they talked about it. And within 20 years of its peak power post WW2 was already in decline (from the 1970s). As a share holder you, however, are now part of that generalised ‘power’ courtesy of your super package… The will to empire is within, it is as powerful as ever, but it is dispersed and feels ‘within reach’ – the emperor is potentially everyone. This is the power, and the trap, of capitalism – it killed off localised empires, and instead placed the impulse to power in the minds not only of the leaders of capital, but in the hearts of ordinary citizens. This was the ‘democratic’ trade-off capitalists made in the 19th C to secure untold wealth and to have access to the resources of the whole world, if not political control over it all. Through soft power they put the idea in the souls of ordinary people that the power of capital will provide them with their own little ‘castle,’ if not empire, of ‘comfort.’ Prior to capitalism there was wild opulence or simple poverty. Capitalism sold comfort to the masses as the trade off for the extension of the market – not only across the world, but ‘into their lives.’ Once people are hooked by that soft power the desire of marketing reinforces it and suddenly people are willing to use what’s left of the power of the state to defend their comfortable castles against boat people, immigrants, Muslims, coloured people and capitalists from other states. Oh, hold on. there’s a flaw there…

    And the flaw is both structural and inside us.

    How do we stand outside a global system that produces injustice and produces in us ‘the will to truth’ of that very system as Foucault puts it? Once, people could stand outside empire and attack it, and Rome could indeed fall. Augustine’s approach to these realities will not serve us well, contrary to the antics and hopes of Nile and co. This is where stepping in the footsteps of the bringer of the kingdom not of this world, whose kingdom is within, is a pretty good place from which to begin. And those who do so, will find that, like him, they will speak truth to power – whether religious or political.

    Some thoughts, anyway…

    • Agreed. I suppose for the Romans soft power was probably exercised more on the more “central” populations living in places like Italy, almost like today US and corporate power is maintained over the “central” populations through “the American dream”, marketing, blah blah blah.

      I don’t know that I’m convinced that the US as superpower should not be considered an empire. Regular exertion of force across the world, exploitative trade practices, protected boundaries etc.

      Where I say, “Yes! Amen!” is in your assertion that I, like others, play a hand in empire. I wouldn’t call myself, or pretty much anyone I know personally, an emperor, though I think you make a powerful point about “will to empire”.

      I am no economist, but what I see of capitalism is simply another way to concentrate power in the hands of a few. The difference to previous systems is there is slightly more economic mobility (though my guess is that it is shrinking) and so people can have a will to power, whether attainable or simply a delusion (I would consider the American Dream to fit here).

      I think, as you imply, standing outside empire is incredibly difficult, given it’s almost all-pervasive nature owing to market forces. As Brueggemann says, we need a new imagination, a prophetic imagination. Defining empire is, in comparison, an easy task…

  4. I would add the Empire characteristic, particularly today in our post-nation-state 21st century world of a DGE (disguised global Empire), that they attempt to camouflage the fact that they are an Empire and pose as a ‘normal’ government — and the Nazi Empire tried crudely to do through it facade of the “Vichy’ regime in France.

    Best luck and love to the “Occupy Empire” educational and revolutionary movement.

    Liberty, democracy, equality, and justice

    Alan MacDonald
    Sanford, Maine

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