Get ready for a new age of empires

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If there’s one thing everyone hates today, it’s colonialism. Liberals associate it with violence, racism, and exploitation. Conservatives associate it with the failed model of European grandeur that we Americans were blessed to escape and bound to reject. For centrists, colonial misadventures underscore their view that we’re so bad at nation-building abroad, we should do it at home. And for just about all of us, it’s impossible to think about imperialism without thinking of colonialism.

Because of that prejudice, we’re misleading ourselves. We think the world’s nation-states are stuck trying to find national solutions to their serious problems. Actually, nationalism is under siege. Its failure to serve people’s needs is fostering a desperate, frustrated feeling that’s caused the use of nationalism to become the focus of massive partisan anger. The sensation that empire would mark a return to war and oppression fuels the West’s panicked bid to make nationalism work.

Actually, today’s social conditions around the world are pushing us headlong toward an age of empires. Nowadays, there’s only one country on Earth — Russia — that can reliably produce grumbles about resurgent imperialism. But even much of that talk misses the important point about why it makes sense for empire to make a comeback.

The Internet helps reveal why. Although the huge movement of so much of life onto the Internet is obviously caused in part by the potential the Internet creates, a deeper driver is the logic of the social conditions that dominate in the flesh and blood world. There’s a lot of talk right now about Facebook. Some argue it’s making us lonelier.Others say something more subtle is afoot.

In a scathing essay at The American Scholar, Pamela Haag warns of a socially-networked future in which loneliness and intimacy simply cease to be the poles of human experience. “Lite intimacies in social media create a background din of disclosure, confession, closeness, and familiarity,” she writes. That’s not “inherently fake or objectionable,” but it is dangerous: online and off, our lite intimacies “might deplete the resources of our true intimacies.”

If the intimate building blocks that once belonged mostly to a domestic partner or family […] now belong to everyone on Facebook in the world of lite intimacy, then how much deeper do we need to go to find the everyday material out of which to recognize, solidify, and build that deeper intimacy? Do we have to scream emotions louder to be heard over the cacophony of the lite intimacy? A mild hypothesis for the new social life of our age: the easier it is to be close but not intimate in public, the easier it is to be close but not intimate in private.

What kind of political expectations flow from that kind of social life? What kind of political arrangements will be desired and tolerated? On the one hand, as Haag indicates, there’s a unified political upshot to our seemingly antagonistic pop cultures of sentimentalism and rage. “The habit of thought that a pop culture of treacle and a pop culture of anger hold in common,” she concludes, “is that we needn’t polish the expression of our private feelings and sorrows into a form that’s relevant and useful, even to strangers and fellow citizens in the commonweal. We can take for granted that our treacle or our anger speaks for itself and presume the relevance of private feelings to public discourse.”

Well, we have taken this for granted. But we also recognize what it’s gotten us — a presidential campaign defined so far by a half-sentimental, half-furious, wholly unserious controversy over which candidate is more anti-dog. The dog moment is a note-perfect collective screech of frustration over the debilitating wars over what our nation is for. The assumption in politics is that policy is the means by which we do whatever the nation is for: hence the phrase “Government is just a name for what we do together,” and hence the mockery of that phrase. You can’t blame the Internet for that. This is an impasse that finds its roots offline.

Does that mean we’ll inevitably turn America into a real empire? No, but the answer is complicated. Typically we think empire is just another word for despotism or tyranny. Sure enough, empires typically feature a single master ruling over all as subjects. But the key feature of empires is that they transcend nations and destroy national identities.

In America, our national identity has waxed and waned apace with our wars. When we haven’t had a big war in a while, our default mode is that of a huge multitude of people who just don’t share a national identity in the same way that Poles or Greeks or Japanese do. Since before the Constitution, this has bothered American leaders who have feared that only a strong national government can keep our multitude robust, inspired, and united. These fears have been overblown. Americans don’t long for a real empire because we already know a different, more decentralized way of flourishing without making nationalism the centerpiece of public life.

For others around the world, that’s assuredly not the case. In much of Africa and Asia, it seems to be nationalism or bust — yet, at the same time, nationalism and bust. Indeed, if North Korea is any indication, the more nationalistic a place, the worse off it seems to be. In almost all of the former Soviet space, mere nationalism is a recipe for weakness and struggle. (Russian nationalism is an emergency stalling tactic.) China, of course, is already an empire. And Europeans are learning just how costly, painful, and dubious it is to continue to flatter nationalist prejudices.

The solution to the political impasse gripping much of the world and much of the West is to give up on fighting over the purpose of the nation and the identity it confers. Americans will consider themselves lucky to be able to do this without gravitating toward empire. For others, empire might well be a salvation.

James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.

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