What follows are my brief reflections on the Philosopher John Milbank’s Theses on Empire originally published on the Theopolis Website.

I originally wrote these as notes for an online discussion I had with the authors of the blogs: Scripture and Cities and Fiat Lustitia. My responses in some places are fairly informal given the conversational tone of the discussion but I have made some brief edits to more fully flesh out my objections, and agreements, with the piece.

I found this especially interesting given Milbank seems to advocate for a position diametrically opposed to that of Yoram Hazony and his vision of Nationalism, something I am admittedly in general agreement with. If you want to hear more on Hazony’s views it seems appropriate to direct you to his interview with Peter Leithart and Alastair Roberts via Theopolis too:

Let’s get started!


1. All political power is ambivalent. Vertical violence of “the state” tends to limit horizontal and contested power between people and between tribes. “The State” brings new oppression, but also a measure of new peace and unity.

Violence of the state, it’s repressive state apparatus, are de facto conservative or preservative institutions. The state is necessarily violent but by setting boundaries on the breadth of society allows it’s complexity to develop, its depth increases as time goes on. When we compare Athens to Sparta we see a society without walls, and a society without limits, is one with comparatively little culture.

Political power is not ambivalent but the product of culture, context and relational bonds between families and groups of families.

2.  All political formations are ambiguous like this: a strong family conquers weaker ones to make a tribe; strong tribes conquer weaker ones to make a kingdom. Then strong kingdoms conquer weaker ones to constitute empires.

Political formations are not necessarily predicated on subjugation of the weak. Whilst this is possible this power is not ambivalent but an expression of discriminating political will undermining the first thesis.

Political formations can be formed through the consensual union of families into tribes, and tribes into nations through a shared culture, heritage or history. Whilst organic parity is rare between social units this is not necessarily a product of subjugation.

Imperial power, however, is necessarily coercive and abstracts and imposes itself over organic bonds of culture, context, or shared history. It is a pure expression of power which is only limited by the degree to which it lacks the means to extend it’s own power over others.

3. Not only is this vertical violence nonetheless the vehicle of a certain definite, if not fully real peace (to evoke Augustine), it has also been linked to the quest for universal truth in the cases of China, India, Greece and Rome.

Peace is a prerequisite for culture to form and the ability to maintain the absence of violence is the mark of legitimacy for any expression of political sovereignty.

In the notion of imperial peace we see a temptation to perceive its existence as intimately linked with the quest for universal truth. The tower of Babel, and the Biblical description of Babylon describe such impulses in man. Whilst all men search for truth, man must live in awareness that he has been made a little lower than the angels and yet crowned with all glory and honour. If the world belongs to the Lord the natural upper limit of human society is the nation represented in scripture by Israel.

4. Thus the history of civilisations is mainly the history of empires.

Empire is opposed to the idea of a plurality of civilisations given its avaricious universal ambitions and is a reductionist lens through which to read history. Civilisation is marked, in part, by its distinction to those around it, it is marked by its limits. Empire as an ideal, therefore in achieving its intended ends, is the death of civilisation. Moreover, empire, like liberalism, is rather better understood as an expression of what the economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell called the ‘unconstrained vision‘ of society. Milbank in making such statements is deploying this view of the world upon history.

5. Nation states are not necessarily more virtuous than empires. They too are the result of conquest. And by monopolising sovereignty in the center and focusing on ethnic identity, they are less subsidiarist and less pluralistic.

Nation states are not necessarily more virtuous than empires, yet a nation beset by vices is necessarily less depraved than an empire in the same condition and serves as a warning to others. 

The expanse of empire distorts the human scale of society creating a distance between sovereign and subjects ensuring the former is less accountable for his vices in this life than the latter. A monarch is always more accountable than an emperor. The breadth of the latters domain is necessarily opposed, over time, to the depth maintained by the former. You build stronger bonds with the one person you meet five times than the five people you meet once (Taleb).

Such a view also predicates all interactions between different political entities as inevitably hostile underscoring the avaricious and unconstrained nature of Imperial thinking. It has no scope to entertain that interactions between nations maybe, on a whole, neighbourly. Respecting and celebrating the difference found in each.

6. The best example is the Holy Roman Empire compared with the Prussian State that later in effect conquered Germany to re-create it as a Nation State. German militarism and racism were to do with expansive nationalism and not classic imperialism, contra Yoram Hazony.

The adoption of the term ‘Third Reich’ by Germany under Hitler was an effort to consciously associate itself with the Holy Roman Empire. Racism is an Enlightenment concept that abdicates any consideration of the complexities of historic nation states like that of England compromised of a plurality of races (Celts, Britons, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Danes, Scandinavians, and Normans). To associate the nation state with racism and militarism also downplays historic overlaps between the question of race and empire in regard to the historic Empire’s like the British and Ottoman both abroad and at home.

7. As to European overseas empires, in order to assess their instance, one surely needs to do a counter-factual thought experiment. Could they not have happened? The answer is surely no. Why?

In the aftermath of Reformational Europe was split into opposing states who looked beyond Europe to advance themselves in the face of domestic threats. The combination of technology and Europe’s own long history of domestic Empire under the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church left Europeans with no frame of reference of how else to interact with the world.

One can recognise the existence of empires as historical facts whilst also recognising they are not qualitatively, nor quantitatively, healthy expressions of human society in line with the ultimate goal of man to be sought out and propagated.

8. For them not to have happened this would have needed at least the sense that tribal cultures are often as equally sophisticated as “civilized” ones. But no civilisation realised this before 20th-century ethnography came to such a correct conclusion. The consequent non-comprehension of tribal political and economic arrangements meant that there was a tragic as well as ethically culpable factor at work in the destruction of indigenous ways of life.

Augustine in the City of God asks: what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? So let us ask ourselves what empires but greater robberies? For what are robberies themselves but lesser empires? That such things occur does not legitimise the existence and conduct of Empire nor to how such conduct conforms to heavenly virtue. Empire necessarily homogenised those it came into contact with, its eventual ends is the disappearance of distinct civilisations.

9. Supposing early modern Europeans had per impossibile come to see the equal validity of tribes (and even Bartolomé de Las Casas did not quite get there), those tribes would have had to be protected from all the privateering freebooters and marauding traders by the political powers. That would have involved some mode of “empire.”

The existence of freebooters and traders abroad was itself a symptom of imperial practice and the domestic toleration, sponsoring, and profiting from such conduct at home which gave license to this. John Hawkins and even Francis Drake are good examples of this. The answer to the problems caused by Empire, or Globalisation, is not, therefore, necessarily more Empire or more Globalisation but the routing of such impulses that give rise to it wherever they may be found.

10. Indeed, to a considerable extent, alongside appalling use of it, this kind of reining-back of private exploitation, or “gentlemanly” semi-inhibition of capitalism, was part of the (very complex, various and contradictory) process by which the overseas empires were formed.

It does explain, in-part, their formation but does not justify it. This is analogous to countries deciding to legalise people trafficking, hard drugs, or prositution, in order that they may profit from, and regulate, it.

11. At the very outset, the European overseas empires emerged somewhat by accident from the need for States to respond to the often exploitative activities of private venturers, even though States themselves often afterwards licensed a more systematic exploitation.  Then throughout their subsequent history these empires involved the frequently conflicting, as well as merging interests of capitalists, missionaries, scientific explorers and colonial settlers, and of all of these with the geopolitical ambitions of the mother-countries.

This is true but merely highlights the impact of man’s reach progressively outstripped his capacity for virtue whilst placing the principal beneficiaries beyond any scope for domestic accountability.

12. Although too often disgracefully exploitative towards original inhabitants (in ways that were pointed out by domestic critics almost from the outset), empires also sometimes liberated them from local tyranny.  These inhabitants were also frequently active participants in, and collaborators with empire, without which it could not have been sustained. Much of the comparative economic disadvantage of colonised territories would have existed anyway; although more usually exacerbated by empire, sometimes imperial regulation served to mollify it.

The net outcome of empire is not unequivocally negative for all involved yet the ends to which it was pursued was not for the betterment of those subjected. The privation of agency to a great many, however, is perhaps the greatest fundamental problem at the heart of the idea of empire.

13. Thus too much of the “apologise for empire” movement gravitates towards being a movement which effectively thinks that “the past should not have happened,” under the illusion that everywhere and at all times human beings could have naturally seen the pure truth. That academics, especially, should encourage this illusion is frightening, because it originates from a lack of real education and understanding.

Questions of what ‘ought’ to have happened in history are always speculative, the questioner themselves, and their asking, is fundamentally shaped by that same history. We owe ourselves to that historical fact and yet empire disproportionately benefits, in an unqualified sense, a small minority of those who live through it and so the question should more be how do we ensure these things do not happen again? 

14. Surely even Rousseau did not quite think like this? Ethical insight builds only slowly and is a constant story of regression and uncertainty as well as progress. We build on what our ancestors got right and we also forget some of what they got right.

Yes – I don’t disagree.

15.  These things are as true as the admitted need constantly to reject what we think our ancestors got wrong. But to imagine that we now have automatic natural and ahistorical insight into what is right is to fall into the same illusion that they so often fell into.

Yes – at the same time this seems to leave open the idea that our ancestors may be right in something we believe deeply wrong (eg slavery). If we really believe anything is right or wrong then that means we reserve the right to unequivocally condemn a practice.

This is a problem with empire in that by aligning unequivocally with it you may forced into providing justify practices you personally object to. The empire served the empires notion of truth, not your own. The same temptation exists in nationalism but the risk is not so universally great and the plurality of nations affords better representation to the many.

16. Instead, we need to recover the sense that dialectical debate which takes time and is never fully resolved goes along with the historical process. Our actions are also a constant debate and search for the truth; our debates are linked to the limited perspectives of our actions.

If this is true we may never unequivocally praise or condemn anything. It can always be contested.

17. I mean dialectics in the Platonic sense. But despite their deluded logicist belief in the automatic power of the negative (in contrast to Plato), Hegel and Marx were right to link dialectics and history. It’s partly why Marx did not simplistically condemn empire.

Can we really say in light of this we ‘ought’ to do anything in light of such statements? Whilst we cannot unequivocally condemn all empires in history we can agree with Aristotle that when a state becomes too large it loses its natural power. The power of empire is a power outside of nature, it is technocratic and mechanised.

18. Thus the woke left is very far from being an Hegelian or a Marxist, much less a Nietzschean or Foucauldian (still more historicist) left. It is merely an ultra-liberal left. And it is mostly not really socialist.

The woke left are rooted in the Enlightenment Nature/Freedom ground motive. They may not be any of these things mentioned but they are the fruit of this thinking and the atomisation and anomie it creates. They are a product of both globalisation and empire.

19. In case some Catholics think I am being too relativist here, it is clear that for Aquinas the natural law or participation in the eternal law is always imperfectly mediated by historically situated law of nations and civil law. See my Church Life Journal articles (here, here, and here).

I do think Milbank is being too relativist here. Linking his defence of empire to the excuses of some civil magisterium seems like an easy way out. It rests on post facto justification. It also concedes grounds to Roman Catholic views concerning the magisterium which potentially creates more problems than it addresses.

20. For Aquinas, unlike Suarez and his successors, a common “law of the nations,” or shared international legal culture had priority over the civil law of nations as the mediator of natural law. Without some sort of international government one has simply an “international anarchy” between nation states, which can then, at best, like isolated liberal individuals, enter into mutually self-interested contracts with each other – with no necessary regard for justice.

This returns to the homogenising facet of Empire as the death of civilisations. It paints a really clear line between the Nature/Grace narrative in Scholasticism and the Nature/Freedom narrative of the Enlightenment. That Aquinas was arguing for neo-liberalism which culminates in some sort of global empire, the Papacy.

Milbank here employs a double standard by assuming nation states only act out of self interest when they work together an empire does not do these things when it legislates. This highlights the conflation for Milbank of means and ends concerning Empire. Again, if Milbank were to be consistent he would stop appropriating Roman Catholic arguments and speak as a Roman Catholic.

21. By contrast, a communitarian international order, based upon a shared cultural sense of natural justice, requires some sort of institutional embodiment. Not “super-states,” but federated commonwealths that to a degree pool their sovereignty.

The scale of these federated empires is such that they cannot help but act in favour to a particular context. A context, as Aristotle states, too broad to maintain its natural power. That context is not universal but its ruling is. Who decides the degree of sovereignty that is pulled? It is not communitarian by impositional.

Empire only amplifies and enshrines the divides that existed between social and national bodies that exist from the outset. See Greece and Germany or France and Italy in the EU today.

22. Today we need such “commonwealths” and not empires. Yet in reality (as for example with the EU) there have to be centers of such organic unity if it is to hold together, and relatively stronger nations will need to take on more of the role of responsible enforcement. In this sense an “imperial” factor can never be wished away from any international order that is not either anarchic or merely utopian (the EU is again an example here).

This is an abuse of the term commonwealth. The EU is closer to an Empire which binds together disparate cultures by means of force. The Commonwealth actually has a sense of history, a post-imperial history, rooted in culture, language, and affection which is also non-coercive and yet composed of strong independent nation states. The EU is in many ways the opposite of a Commonwealth, it is an artificial, predominantly legal, entity.

23. Overseas empires have too often been the instruments of appalling exploitation and persecution. Yet they were also sometimes the means for the enforcement of international justice. Thus the British empire was partly enabled by the slave trade, yet it was also the means for the global ending of this trade – an unprecedented event in human history.

Again the problems an empire might solve are also the problems caused by an empire. Likewise the answer to people trafficking, or an international drug trade, is not to legalise it. The distinction between the policy of the British Isles regarding slavery (outlawing it domestically) but allowing it in it’s colonies is a prime example of empire giving license to man’s reach outstripping his virtue.

24. Ultimately, too much of the current “decolonizing” ideology covertly tracks back to the founding liberal myth of the United States which was about the rejection of an imperial master. Yet from the outset this was deployed in part as a mask for genocide and racism and for the expansion of a specifically Republican mode of empire, more committed to establishing an “American” mode of uniformity, in comparison with the greater cultural pluralism of the European overseas empires.

In either case it is the acceptance of imperial beliefs that undermines it, the ‘American mode of uniformity’ was heavily based on French Revolutionary thought which prioritised logic over the empiricism of the English legal tradition laying the foundations for the US’s liberalism and eventual neoliberalism. Decolonising ideology continues in the Enlightenment spirit of emancipating the individual, if need be by force. The act of decolonisation is, therefore, necessarily a colonial and imperial act.

25. Today, “post-colonial” thought is similarly too collusive with continued and sometimes ever more terrible modes of economic imperialism by virtue of not sufficiently confronting its reality, preferring instead to focus upon symbolic cultural targets and gestures. But this current imperialism has often contributed decisively to the total dysfunctionality of many states that are thereby no longer able to recover just on their own. Their future rescue and the advancement of their peoples depends, in part, upon a better-directed assistance on the part of wealthier nations and on these states being brought within the kind of federated commonwealth logic already described. We need, for example, stronger pan-Latin American and African groupings, and these need to be systematically linked to European and North American cross-border federations. The British Commonwealth and Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie can play important mediating roles here.

The answer to economic imperialism is not legal imperialism and this confederated logic mentioned is not a universal constant but a product of a given culture, it’s alien to many people. Many post-colonial nations are a mess because they were modeled by colonial powers according to European attitudes not reflecting the experiences of those actually long occupied in those areas. A good example of this is the Middle East. To succeed in this they not only have to learn Western culture and legal traditions but also abandon their own equivalents. This puts them at a considerable disadvantage and Milbank’s paternalism here can be argued as a continuation of imperial beliefs which praises the virtue of ‘civilising’ subjects. At the same time this underscores the necessarily homogenising dimension of imperialism.


Coda

The economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we can never discuss the merits of a given political system without reference to scale. What an Empire can do at a macro scale it cannot necessarily replicate at the micro level. 

The empire as a model is fragile, due to its centralisation, and is not replicable at a smaller scale. It’s decision making is predominantly done at great distance, in a plurality of senses, to the context concerned. The nation, by contrast, is modeled on the family at scale and is a system that represents the ability and desire to maintain different political structures at different points in the scale of human society. Principally a trend and desire to be progressively libertarian in how we think of the world and communitarian with regard to our immediate family, neighbours and environment. The imperial or technocratic impulse is the opposite of this. 

The family, as the most basic unit of human society, is best served by a national system over an imperial given the center of gravity is also inevitably closer to the family unit. A family is only invested in a political system depending on the degree of agency it is able to exercise within that system. As Goethe observed on August 6, 1806 the day the Holy Roman Empire was abolished. “the people staying in the same inn as him were far more interested in the quarrel between their coachman and the innkeeper than in its demise.” (A. Roberts, Napoleon the Great. Penguin, 2015) What we can take from this is that a political system which most closely aligns these interests local and communal interests is superior to one that does not. A Nation, rather than an Empire, better reflects the upper limits of political organisation attainable in a healthy human society. Taleb in his views on societal scale, to me, reflects that of Aristotle when he famously stated:

To the size of states there is a limit as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or two small, but they either wholly lose their nature or are spoilt.

Aristotle, The Politics

The self-evident truth of which, I believe, shows Milbank’s conclusions to be unfavourable.

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