After Empire

This essay appears in A Beautiful Resistance: After Empire.

A friend in the United States recounted a chilling story to me a few months ago. His brother, one of the most peaceable people I’ve ever met in my life, had a gun pointed at him by his neighbor.

The situation that led to it was rather complicated, but the summary of the story is this: his neighbor, reacting with deep emotions to the news of another Black person killed by police, threatened to kill my friend’s brother because the workers repairing his roof were letting pieces fall onto this neighbor’s yard.

My friend’s brother talked him down while the loaded gun was pointed at him, and chose not to call the police because, as most are aware, an emergency call about a Black person’s threatening behavior is pretty likely to lead to that person’s death in the U.S.

Days later the neighbor apologized, stating that he’d been so angry about racism in the United States that he saw my friend’s brother (a white man) as a symbol for everything happening. No one died, the roof was eventually repaired, and from last I heard they are getting along better, despite it being hard to fully come down from a situation where a gun was pointed at someone’s head.

Scenarios like this are not all that uncommon. I’ve heard other situations recounted, many with threats of violence (though this is the only gun-related one I’ve been told of), each mediated by larger racial conflicts over which the individuals involved have little influence. Fear, anxiety, and an over-arching sense that the Other represents an imminent threat despite the human-ness of their flesh and presence now rule most of our societal relations.

This is what it feels like when Empire falls.

While we tend to focus on the exploitative and authoritarian aspects of Empire, we should not forget that they also have a pacifying effect on cultural and societal conflict. The “Pax Romana” was named as such for this very reason: the presence of an excessively powerful center ruling over large territories in which people with vastly different cultural values lived meant that a kind of “peace” prevailed. Gaulish, Celtic, and Germanic tribes which had previously waged bloody war against the Roman invasions were eventually “pacified,” brought into the Roman empire and under its cultural dominance. This meant the wars stopped, at least while the empire was strong.

As that empire began to crumble under its own weight, however, these old angers re-emerged. Knives were sharpened, new armies raised, old tribal loyalties re-affirmed and the dream of independence resurrected. Eventually the empire could no longer sustain peace through force and economic satiety, and when it fell there was nothing left of its glory but old monuments and over-grown roads.

The United States has also been called a pacifying empire (the Pax Americana) because of its hegemonic role over the Western hemisphere after World War II. Unacknowledged in the acceptance of this idea however is that the Pax Americana extended to the territory that is now the United States before that war. Most know of the bloody conflicts and campaigns of starvation that aided the US government “pacifying” the indigenous populations there, but like the Roman Empire it did not do so only through aggression. For instance, the treaties forged and the economic benefits exchanged with some tribes (the Five Civilized Tribes) were a primary cause of the failure of Tecumseh’s uprising, just as Roman treaties and preferential treatment of some Gaulish tribes left Vercingetorix with few allies in his final stand against Julius Caesar at Alesia.

Now, though the imperial influence of the United States wanes across the world, it still holds hegemonic influence over the country it claims and the people it brought in to its “peace.” Again like Rome, offering the economic benefits of Empire (even so unevenly distributed) to the descendants of those it first conquered has done just as much to maintain its hold over its citizens as Roman wealth (likewise unevenly distributed) did. Even the racially-oppressed underclasses still enjoy some access to American dominance (cheap oil and technology) despite being otherwise locked out of the regime of human rights which supposedly is guaranteed in Empire’s scam. More so, the US military (possibly the most racially-diverse institution in America) follows the imperial Roman model, enlisting the conquered to conquer others.

A third—and probably more vital—pacification now rules the world, however: the Pax Capitalis, or the “Peace of Capital.” Since the birth of neo-liberalism, capital now functions as a hegemonic imperial force, seen clearly in the commercial districts of every city of the world. Everywhere it is the same, the same international chains dressed subtly in local cultural aesthetic just as the Interpretatio Romana rebranded the gods of the conquered with their imperial “equivalent.” We everywhere use the same social media apps, purchase food made by the same international conglomerates, buy clothes made in the same factories, and like the citizens of Rome sate ourselves on these imperial spoils as our consolation prize for losing our histories.

Under the flattening, monocultural hegemony of the Pax Capitalis those lost histories become new stories shaped by Empire. Before the hegemony of the Pax Capitalis, we at least had more historic yet still ideologically shallow identities: religion, nationality, profession, all subsumed finally into the monotheist and global identity of consumer. What it meant to be from a family, or a village, or a tribe are realms of meaning that can no longer be accessed by most, and now that the gluttonous spoils of Empire dwindle, we are left to construct from the detritus of history: race, gender, sexuality—the color of our skin, what we do with our genitals and what they mean or don’t mean.

Empire can no longer hold us together, no longer pacify our memories or hatred with constructed narratives or bread and circus games. And just as religious fervor to the Christian god increased in the final years of Rome, so too does a faith that what Empire wrought in our lives might save us as the walls fall. More technology, more politics, more consumption, more of every “truth” that was only ever an article of faith we repeated to keep the Empire from falling—these we cling to like prayer beads in an earthquake.

In all this, we must ask: what comes after Empire? If Empire told us we were consumers, what are we when there is no Empire? If Empire told us we are raced, classed by what kind of love we affect, determined by the state of our bodies for certain kinds of lives and not that of others, then what of us when Empire is no longer there to enforce these things?

It is quite likely—even inevitable—that many of us will cling to those old categories even harder. Race, particularly, may become the creed with the highest body count, especially with the rise of fascist reactions to the internal collapse of the Pax Americana that now terrify the world.

It is also possible—though hardly inevitable—that the experience of my friend’s brother and his neighbor could lead to something completely different. The moments of rage and fear, disciplined into us through the constant voice of social media and the propaganda from politicians eager to hold on to power, may still continue regardless. Yet before the trigger is pulled, before the police are called, before each situation becomes irrevocable, humanity might re-surge, shake off the mad collective spell we are all under, and remember that we have always existed not because of Empire, but despite it.

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