Get ready for a new age of empires

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.”