Empires of ‘Progress’?

The Rise of Imperial Management in the West

26th August 2020
David Betz & M.L.R. Smith

Statues, street names, song lyrics, the school curriculum, university reading lists…

Some see the legacy of Britain’s colonial past everywhere. Their task is to root it out and expunge it from record. But as all our leading national institutions – universities, museums, the BBC, banks and businesses –  rush to embrace calls to decolonise, we need to ask: just how radical is this project? 

Here, David Betz and M.L.R. Smith argue that far from wanting an end to empire, today’s elite decolonisers actually want to re-colonise society – according to their own values and assumptions.


Are you secretly nostalgic for empire? Do you harbour a sentimental longing for the days of the Raj, the grandeur of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ colonial spires, sunsets overlooking the tropical veranda on the rubber plantation while sipping gin bitters; an unspoken lament for a lost world where the map was a profusion of pink, and where one could experience the thrill of it all?

Well, unfortunately for you, you had better keep your views to yourself. In the current political climate any hankering after the days of empire is just about the worst thing one can possibly admit. Across the political spectrum cries ring out for the ‘decolonisation’ of just about everything: the academic curriculum for a start, but the raging demand extends to rebuke, erase, and replace invidious imperialistic vestiges – along with the associated sins of systemic racism – wherever they appear.

Museums and library shelves, film and television, commercial advertisements, statues in the public square, government at every level from the municipal to the national, public institutions including the police, the armed forces, and even the national health services, must be purged. They should be cleansed because imperialism, both its physical relics and its mental architecture, still informs our present. As one BBC report put it in July 2020: ‘Racism and statues: how the toxic legacy of empire still affects us’.

The stain of empire across public life therefore must be confronted and expunged. Ambivalence towards this goal is tantamount to the support of evil. Scepticism should be denounced and punished. In the academic sphere any calling for a balanced historical accounting of the pros and cons of empire must incur urgent and vigorous sanctions: at a minimum an ‘open letter’ from your ‘colleagues’ casting doubt on your intellectual integrity, character and future career prospects. The anti-colonialist project must be totalising in outlook. It cloaks itself in the rhetoric of revolt. It calls for a cultural revolution to overthrow old imperial habits, customs and traditions.

But, is the anti-colonialist project really a call for revolt? And, for that matter, is it really anti-colonialist? We contend that the answer to both questions is that it is not. Its advocates do not want an end to empire. They crave empire. As a concept they fetishise and embrace it. They don’t want to decolonise the structures of society. They want to colonise them with their own ruling assumptions. They desire and demand imperial subservience. Let us explain.

The revolutionary paradox

The solutions that this supposedly radical anti-imperialist/decolonisation project seeks to impose on society are, in fact, the techniques and artefacts of empire that would be perfectly recognisable to Caesar Augustus, Genghis Khan or Vladimir Lenin. Morally, juridically, politically, socially, and economically, the endeavour is an imperial one. That is to say, it represents a policy of extending power over peoples and physical spaces, through force if necessary, thus appropriating a place or domain, by bringing it under the control of a set of ruling arrangements presided over by a leader, potentate, party or oligarchical structure.

Consider two contrasting phenomena: 

1) 26 July 2020: the image of Sasha Johnson, one of the leaders of the Oxford Black Lives Matter movement, clad in beret and cool shades, clenched fist aloft, declaring that the police are like the KKK, that racism is capitalism, and chanting ‘One solution: revolution’; 

2) 28 July 2020: the BLM (Welsh branch) issues a manifesto that, amongst other things, demands cultural integration, the safeguarding of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) heritage in museums, the creation of a national BAME citizens assembly, reform of policing and the funding of grassroots BAME organisations.

The striking thing is that the two claims inherent in these manifestations of BLM exist in complete contradiction: the call for revolution and the overthrow of ‘the system’ on the one hand, versus the demand for reform and integration into the very same system condemned, as colonialist and institutionally racist, on the other. Logic and coherence might not necessarily be the strong point of BLM and its various acolytes, but the existence of this intriguing paradox is clear: revolution against the system or integration within the system? Which wins out? 

An answer to this puzzle might be discerned if we examine the performative dynamics – or rather lack of them – at work in Sasha Johnson’s exhortations to revolution, for her incitements to ‘take it to the streets’ rang curiously hollow. The video footage of her revolutionary incantations, delivered in a flat, monotone, style suggested someone who did not really believe what they were saying. The effect, even on the BLM militia supporters surrounding her, was evidently less than inspiring, and by the look on some of the faces positively soporific.

The new (and not so) Great Game

In contrast to the theatrics of the Oxford BLM protestors, stand those voices, like the advocates of the BLM (Wales) manifesto, who clearly want ‘in’ with the system and to garner more of the power and public goods that might be on offer. In this quest, public and private bodies are more than happy to cut a deal. Their actions may be no less histrionic than their Oxford BLM counterparts, but, nevertheless, from millionaire football league players bending the knee before kick-off, to calls for BLM activists to become magistrates (‘to help improve diversity and increase trust’), to commercial companies instituting bias training and ‘diversity’ quotas, to universities falling over themselves to ‘decolonise’ their curriculums and to launch inquiries into their own complicity in the toxic legacies of empire, slavery and colonialism, the established centres of political and cultural power are always willing to play the game. 

What is this game? It is the game of empire. And it is not the least bit revolutionary. Its dynamics are top-down, not bottom-up. Its object is the maintenance of the status quo. The rhetoric of ‘social justice’ is invoked to disguise this rationale, which is simply an updated justificatory cover name for ‘civilising mission’. In this case ‘civilising’ applies to the ignorant, uneducated and mostly working class indigenes. The mission applies also to ethnic minorities, who are to be treated like children in need of saving from the hideously oppressive structures of Western society because they are perceived as incapable of doing anything for themselves. Its techniques of subjugation, control, divide and rule, are textbook. There is nothing fundamental at work here that was not understood, presaged, and warned against by the likes of Plato, Cicero, and Machiavelli.

Nation versus empire

Politics is the business of deciding who gets what, where and when. Since the Enlightenment it has been presumed that good government, namely, a naturally and morally legitimate one, is where people are free to speak their minds, associate with others whom they wish, and pursue happiness by whatsoever means that does not harm the rights of others through some form of consensual participative decision-making. 

In the Enlightenment tradition, the vehicle by which a fair-minded distribution of political and economic power could be best achieved was seen as the nation state. The nation state would function as the reservoir of pre-political loyalties, allowing significant numbers of people to transcend the tyranny and backwardness inherent in the village mentality, clannishness and tribal conflict. In place of tribe and clan would be a shared public morality, inhering in the nation state, entailing duties, obligations and responsibilities towards a wider polity.

The nation state, though, is not the only way in which the natural condition of the tribe and the clan can be tamed. Empire is another. In some ways, empire is an easier way. Imperial systems make fewer and less extensive demands on pre-political loyalties. Tribes are a feature of empires, not an impediment. Nation states can only be as big as the idea of a ‘nation’ – a mutable and intangible concept at the best of times. Empires, by contrast, are limited only by the dictates of power. And ruling elites, if they understand anything, tend to understand power above all.

Historically speaking, the demands of empire on its subjects are stringent but narrow. So long as outward deference to the imperial cult is maintained then at a group level there can be considerable autonomy. Think of the willingness of the British to extend their control through the existing authority of tribal chieftains in West Africa in the nineteenth century, or the high degree of self-rule granted to Afrikaaners following the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 by way of illustration. 

The concept of the imperial in an age of globalisation

Empires can be prosperous, militarily effective, but also peaceful at their height. They can even be technologically and culturally productive. They cannot, however, be democratic. As David Martin Jones writes in History’s Fools (2020), democracy requires democrats, ‘or, more precisely, citizens demanding “recognition” as individual stakeholders in society bearing equal constitutional rights’. Empires don’t do equal rights because imperial politics is conducted amongst interest groups, or ‘communities’ in the modern parlance, howsoever they are formed.

The era that many have described as one of globalisation, one of open borders and supranational institutions comprising entities like the European Union (EU), the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, and a host of other transnational acronyms, is a quasi-imperial age. For many who describe themselves as ‘global citizens’, and who otherwise indulge in the inch deep, mile wide, pop-cultural fashions for gaining sovereignty over oneself, political loyalties reside in identities that are irrelevant to nationality, sometimes even hostile to nationality. They are happy to ignore the overt and habitual norms of national politics, including democratic elections, and give their allegiance to post-national constellations, such as the EU.

National government under globalism is reduced to little more than a local authority, delivering services to the population as permitted by the imperial dispensation. Elections themselves are largely pro forma exercises that change little of substance. Most decisions of long-term consequence are taken in an oligarchic manner at the transnational level, sometimes by state and post-state institutions governed notionally by formal treaties, but more importantly informally via confabs such as the annual Davos World Economic Forum meetings of business and political elites.

Manifestations of empire

The predilection for empire is all around us and for many who think as globalists rather than as nationalists it is the only show in town. In geopolitical terms, the EU increasingly disports itself as an empire. In September 2019, the prominent Member of the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, declared: ‘The world order of tomorrow… is a world order based on empires’. The only way in which a nation like Britain can properly secure its ‘interests and way of life’ was, according to Verhofstadt, within the imperial embrace of the EU.

In this understanding the United States is also an empire, not only globally (an observation post-Marxists have been boring us with for 50 years already), but also domestically. Its days as a republic based on equal constitutional rights seem to be numbered as its internal politics fragment along racial, ethnic and other identityisms: the next stop is a more formal imperial arrangement based on patronage systems and the privileging of minority groups, something for which the Democrat Party in particular has been preparing assiduously for years. Xi Jinping, likewise, sits atop a hard imperialistic regime with a thin layer of Red communist icing, though explicitly rejects any notion that there can be any other loyalty other than to the Chinese state. Russia, too, in most ways except in name, has revived the governing hallmarks of imperialism.

Economically, despite the existence of a supposedly liberal trading order, the trend of the last few decades has been towards mercantilism, another feature of empires: first in the EU (especially at its centre in Germany), followed by China, and now rapidly and aggressively by the United States, which sees itself as playing catch-up having been hoodwinked by the globalist ‘open economy’ ideology that wasted much of its manufacturing industry. The trend has also been exacerbated by the emergence of techgiant monopolism, which has increasingly concentrated wealth – and power – within single integrated operations and supply chains. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Apple and Google, for instance, are the modern successors to the British and Dutch East India companies.

Socially, at least in the West (the culture with which we are most familiar), conformity to the imperial cult manifests itself in the commitment to the dictates of ‘diversity and inclusion’, climate crisis, and white self-abnegation. These pretensions are not means to attain equality and justice. They are techniques of control based on dividing up societies based on race, religion, ethnicity, class, and education. In effect, a new caste system is in the process of being created: the correctly virtuous ‘Brahmin’ (the well-heeled university graduates) at the top, and the ‘untouchables’ (the string vested, white van driving types) at the bottom.

Juridically, the enduring hold of an imperial mentality is revealed in the profound difficulty that Britain, an ancient country and still one of the most powerful in the world, has had in extracting itself from the laws of the European Union (or more precisely from the bureaucratic edicts of the Brussels mandrinate). The vigorous, and deeply undemocratic, attempt to resist the referendum verdict in 2016 to leave the European Union, displayed how weakened the construct of the nation state had become in the minds of many of the political classes.

Morally, too, the mental architecture of imperialism exhibits itself on a daily basis. The fact that the Vatican through to Hollywood opinion-makers almost uniformly argue that movement towards a more ‘socially just’ and post-national world is ‘progressively correct’ demonstrates how completely the idea has penetrated the belief systems of this elite up to and including the Catholic representative of God on Earth.

Western empire at the end of history

How did we end up here, in a rhetorically post-imperial world but one, in fact, enveloped in the structures of empire? We can search for an answer in the totalising and, ergo, imperialistic post-Cold War claims that liberal democratic capitalism had permanently triumphed. The ‘End of History’ thesis enunciated by the likes of Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s asserted a world in which putative ‘Western values’ – most, in fact, invented after 1945 – were universal. These values were liberal, emancipatory, and promoted open economies. They denoted pluralistic, tolerant societies, and its blandishments were available to all humanity regardless of religion, creed or culture. The world these values extolled was one of openness, interconnectedness, interdependence and, ultimately, integration. 

It was, in reality, a world in which wealth became portable and predatory. Holders of money and power thrived on a borderlessness that freed them from annoying impediments such as taxes, welfare provisions and labour rights. If most people were capable of functioning within the supposed ‘liquidity’ that such a world presupposed (having equal access to information technologies, wealth and proficiency in English, for example) then perhaps such global idealism might have borne fruit. A world imperial system might well have emerged. In practice, as those like David Goodhart have shown in The Road to Somewhere (2016), many, if not most, people do not long to be global citizens of anywhere. They also resent the idea that such an existence should be preordained for them.

For the two decades after the end of the Cold War, it appeared that transnationalism had vanquished state based nationalism. In learned works, such as Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson’s Globlization in Question (1996) and Susan Strange’s Retreat of the State (1997), it became commonplace to assert that there are forces in the world that nations are powerless to resist. ‘National’ political elites were inclined to emphasise these impersonal forces not least because they absolved them from responsibility for their actions, thus rendering them conveniently unaccountable to their electorates. As Prime Minister, Tony Blair declared to the Labour Party conference in 2005 that resistance to globalisation was futile.  ‘I hear that people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer’, he proclaimed. Globalisation’s ‘rules’ were, in this regard, to be enforced locally by technocratic elites. Leaders of states were to act as little more than satraps, the provincial governors who administered the functions of the Persian Empire.

A division of the spoils

One of the characteristics of empire is the operation of different and separate systems of justice in relation to different peoples and groupings. Different rules apply, in effect, to different people in accordance with which community they belong. That is how the Ottoman millet system worked. This ruling technique was undoubtedly one that European powers imposed on the rest of the world in their own overseas empires, including for long periods in the British Empire. Imperial politics is practically all about the negotiation of the division of the spoils and balance of power within factional groupings who are not and, ultimately, do not even pretend to be, representative of a single people.

What appears to be novel in the current era is the extent to which this imperial system of differential justice is being applied within the ostensibly unified sovereign states of the West. If you think this is an exaggeration, ask yourself, why does the United Kingdom have a ‘Communities Secretary’ (a position created in 2006 by Tony Blair’s New Labour government)? In theory, the British polity should exist as a single community of people, all equal under the law. The idea of overseeing and administering different communities is a profoundly imperial concept. 

Governing the multicultural polity: identity politics and imperialism

As an imperial concept it made sense to have a Vizier of Communities in the Topkapi Palace to manage the different confessional groups in the Ottoman Empire, or for the British to appoint colonial officials as formal advocates for particular ethnic groups, such as William Pickering who functioned as the Protector of the Chinese in Singapore between 1877 and 1889. But to have a minister of communities in the Palace of Westminster tells us a great deal about how modern political elites wish to govern their ‘multicultural’ polities. Evidently, they perceive the desirability of ‘managing’ their societies in conditions where the concept of nationality has been so denuded that it is not uncommon to append the word ‘titular’ to nationality to denote, in effect, a passport holder who may not feel any citizen-like responsibility to the nation, and no especial attachment to its laws, culture, traditions, heritage or well-being.

The application of the techniques of imperial rule within the state dovetails with the triumph of identity politics, the tendency of people to form into exclusive socio-political blocs based on actual or assumed characteristics. It is one of the supreme ironies that a supposedly radical project of ‘decolonisation’ actually fuels the very politics of empire that one might presume, in theory, it should oppose. Viewing politics through the lens of identity is now so conceptually dominant in government, the universities, the civil service, public and private corporations, that it becomes very difficult for people to think outside of this particular box, and a bad career move to question it.

So, identity politics are, in practice, the politics of empire. The prevalence of this mode of post-national governance amongst the elite political classes in the era of so-called globalisation is classically imperial. It is also utterly incompatible with any recognisable principles of Western democratic conduct.

The false promise of the global imperium

We have argued already that if a modernised variant of imperial politics was genuinely leading to a more prosperous, peaceful and creative world, there might be little room for complaint. If the era of globalisation corresponded to the integrated, and relatively benign, political and trading conditions that characterised the British imperial crescent in Asia before World War II, described so eloquently by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper in Forgotten Armies (2004), there would be some grounds for optimism that the world might be evolving towards an economically benevolent and liberal minded order.

But there is no cause for such optimism. The political and economic regime that the globalist imperium has instituted is one in which authoritarianism and egregious inequities prevail. It has resulted in the concentration of enormous wealth in the hands of a tiny upper percentile, while degrading labour conditions for the rest. According to a 2019 report from Oxfam, the richest one per cent now possesses twice as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent of the world’s population. The only thing that the 90 per cent ‘own’ in abundance is debt. The middle classes are slowly being eviscerated. The global imperial classes meanwhile routinely swan around the world with the help of a legion of financial and legal advisors in order to avoid incurring any civic responsibilities such as paying fair rates of tax. They are able to get rich through the creation of fake economic booms, yet avoid reaping any of the consequences when they turn to dust as in 2007/08.

Within the domestic realm, the impact of global imperialism has led to a hollowing out of party political organisations, greater surveillance of society, and the erosion of traditional liberties of free speech and association. Furthermore, in terms of foreign policy, the myriad brushfire wars of the post-Cold War era are animated not by threats to national security but ‘humanitarian’ (i.e. civilising mission) causes. They are termed ‘interventions’: passion-less conflicts governed by ‘strategies’ that have nearly everything to do with risk-management and domestic political theatre. This is, in actuality, how empires fight and what they fight about. 

Coronavirus reveals imperialism in the domestic sphere

It has, though, been in the conditions wrought by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic that emerged from China and spread through globalisation’s porous and multiculturally sensitive borders, that the underlying premises of an imperial structure of rule has been exposed in the domestic setting. The disparity in the application of rules and standards for different groups depending upon their perceived moral and virtue status has been clearly evident. In both the US and the UK, if you believe in ‘just’ causes and reside on the right (that is, the Left) side of the political aisle, you will be granted the freedom to gather in mass outside the confines of the coronavirus Health Protection regulations, including the right to parade in paramilitary uniform, to tear down statues, deface monuments and public spaces, to take-over inner city areas and generally run amok. The mainstream broadcast media, along with other public bodies, will endorse the discretionary legal process and re-describe any disturbances as largely peaceful rioting.

In contrast, for other groups, the right to contravene lockdown rules is forbidden. You will not be allowed to gather for worship at a Christian church, for instance (though you will be allowed to go to the local casino), or to defend your property, or bury dead family members with dignity. Elsewhere, you risk arrest and prosecution for stepping out in public without a mask or doing anything to protest your rights. 

Whatever one’s views of the rights and wrongs of the official response to the Covid-19 pandemic, one thing is clear, if you inhabit a polity that tolerates parallel rules and discretionary laws you do not live in a democracy. You live within a system of imperial management.

Asking the question

The world is in a perplexing tumult. Bewildered by the events of the past eight months, many people are likely to be struggling to understand what is going on around them. Ordinary citizens within formally functioning democracies such as the UK are likely to remain mystified by the quite deliberate consequences of a lifetime of misinformation and miseducation propagated by media and educational institutions that are fully servile to the imperial age. 

For what it is worth, our advice is that asking the question is the first step to clarification. Have you wondered what all these identity politics claims represent? Are you baffled by the ideals and demands of BLM? Have you questioned why certain interest groups tend to receive preferential treatment? Have you asked these kinds of things but dared not speak the questions out loud? Welcome to the crowd. Open your mouth and shout. It may surprise you how many others shout along with you.

Asking the question is likely to reveal that although some voices who pose as ‘progressive’ might speak noisily and be filled with passionate intensity, all is not what it seems. It is easy to mistake this fervour for revolution. But it is not that at all. Beneath the vociferous rhetoric is often a claim for greater recognition, state protection and preferment. Wittingly or not, what is at work here is an effort to maintain the status quo, a ‘progressive’ consensus of relatively recent provenance (no more than two generations deep) comprising a set of elite assumptions that are not widely shared by the rest of the population, and have certainly never really been subjected to democratic decision. Today’s ‘revolutionaries’ operate within the imperial structure, and implicitly accept its overlordship.

What does the perpetuation of the imperial structure play into? Ultimately, it plays into a form of elite management. Returning to the start of this essay, our aspiring empire nostalgist can go to university and learn the new rules of the woke elite by which you, the multiculturally aware, critical theory trained, graduate can go out into the world and ‘manage’ the various local tribes and ‘communities’ into which society is increasingly being cast. Going to university these days and studying the humanities and social sciences is like an updated training for the Indian Civil Service.

Conclusion: The new imperialists

For those who take the long view, there might be some consolation in the knowledge that all empires come to an end. The historical pattern of empires is that at some point they fragment and disintegrate back into nations. That process may be protracted and tortured but in almost every instance the imperial system breaks down: undermined by the centrifugal forces that lurk beneath any structure of governance that depends on managing competing claims for group recognition and with its moral, and legal, authority diminished by the growing realisation of the inherent injustices of unequal rules, laws and treatment for different ‘communities’.

Until that point in history arrives, however, those who preside over the deracinated societies of the West are likely to continue to think in terms of elite management and divide and rule. Although they might operate under the guise of diversity coordinators, BLM activists, curriculum decolonisers, or international relations ethics professors, there is nothing innately progressive about them. They view politics and society through the prism of race and religion. They are obsessed with categorising people according to ascribed characteristics. They are imbued with a sense of their own moral superiority. They believe they should be in charge. 

Meet the new imperialists. Same as the old imperialists.


David Betz is Professor of War in the Modern World at King’s College London. Amongst his publications he is author of Carnage and Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Military Power (London: Hurst, 2015) and co-author of Cyberspace and the State (London: IISS, 2012).

M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory at King’s College London. He is co-author of Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age (London: Macmillan, 2014) and The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). His most recent essays for Cieo are ‘University of Fearand ‘The West’s Maoist Moment’ (with David Martin Jones).