The New Imperialists: Ideologies of Empire.

Ed. Colin Mooers. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006.

Reviewed by Mauricio Martinez

In 1550, the Spanish city of Valladolid (which was itself a Moorish city until the tenth century, but at that time the capital of the Spanish Empire) was witness to a famous debate on whether or not it was justifiable to wage a war of conquest against the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. The central question – as it is for all debates regarding the legitimacy of imperial conquest – was that of hierarchy and supremacy: whether, in the first place, it is right or just that some are superior and others inferior (peoples, systems, religions, states); and secondly, whether it is right or just for the superior to rule over the inferior. In short: the question is one of equality or inequality.1

At one side of this debate stood Bartolomé de las Casas, Dominican and bishop of Chaipas, sympathetic to the plight of the Indians and noble advocate on their behalf, after years of first-hand experience witnessing the various atrocities committed by the Spanish colonists. On the other side, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, scholar and philosopher, who ignited the controversy by challenging the refusal to publish his treatise advocating the cause of just war (jus ad bellum) against the Indians.

The debate was mainly philosophical and theological: both based their arguments primarily on the Bible; Sepúlveda distinguishes himself in this regard through the significant addition of Aristotle. After all, Sepúlveda made a name for himself by having translated the Aristotle’s Politics into Latin, and draws heavily upon Aristotle’s argument that superiority and inferiority were inherent by nature – that masters were masters by nature and slaves were slaves by nature, just as the body is subordinate to the soul, children to parents, women to men, and so on.

From this basis just war against the Indians quickly follows: it is natural to subject by force inferior beings to the rule of the superior; that the Indians are by nature slaves whose practices of cannibalism and human sacrifice must be abolished; that they are ignorant of Christianity, and therefore not only must they be saved themselves, but also the innocents whom they put to death to appease their barbaric gods; that a war of conquest against these heathens is justified because it prepares the way for their conversion to Christianity and provides a safe environment for missionary work.

There is a moral imperative implicit here. It is not only right, but in practical terms a real duty to impose salvation upon others by force. Slavery, massacre, genocide: indeed, in Sepúlveda’s world view, the salvation of a single soul easily justifies the conquest and even extinction of an entire continent of people.

Today, in an historical-dialectical reversal of polarities, America is not the focus of conquest by imperial power, but rather America – okay, strictly speaking, the United States – instead projects its imperial power across the entire globe as the world’s first and only hyperpower. The New Imperialists: Ideologies of Empire is an anthology dedicated to examining and uncovering the Sepúlvedas of our time, the ideologies and ideologues that seek to justify the cause of just war against terror, primarily in the Muslim world, which, incidentally, had itself so carefully preserved Aristotelian thought, particularly in Spain, without which Sepúlveda could never have made his arguments.

As Ellen Meiksins Wood, whose chapter “Democracy as Ideology of Empire,” cogently and pointedly opens the book, explains, US administrations have for a long time justified imperialist interventions on the basis of a mission to spread and defend democracy – a form of political salvation seemingly worth countless innocent lives.

But even then, as Wood notes, the US version of democracy is riddled with irony and paradox: “[a]t this point in history, more than ever, it is hard to invoke a discourse of inequality and hierarchy, so the available ideological strategies are more limited than ever. They are largely confined to ostensibly democratic and egalitarian ideologies,” i.e. democracy.2 The key word in Wood’s statement is “ostensibly.” As the US “idea of democracy” is a capitalist democracy, it is based in a fundamental separation between politics and economics, and therefore “between formal equality in one sphere and substantive inequality in another.”3

Wood sets the tone for the rest of the book which more or less continues to elaborate the various ways in which the new imperialist ideology that has emerged hand-in-hand with neo-conservatism in the United States (and is typified by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Samuel Huntington and our very own Michael Ignatieff) is inherently contradictory, paradoxical, and ironical.

Tariq Ali’s contribution – perhaps the flagship contribution of the anthology – interrogates Huntington’s notion that Islam and the West represent diametrically opposed forces in a civilizational conflict. If Aristotle represents the silent pyramid behind the relatively modest tomb of Sepúlveda, Ali peels back the façade of Huntington to find the shadows of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt and German philosopher Oswald Spengler.

Ali points to the contradictions in the theory of a “Clash of Civilizations”; how is it, Ali asks, that Islam is portrayed as so radical and anti-Western, when it was precisely the Islamists who were just 20 or 30 years ago the pawns of the British and the US, always attempting to stamp out any possibility of a radical alternative? Indeed, as Ali rightly argues, Huntington, by proclaiming fundamental oppositions between religions and cultures, blindly ignores their deep interconnections, and the Clash of Civilizations thesis begins to sound more like a strategy and self-fulfilling prophecy than a real observation about Islam’s real and potential relationships with Western culture.

Shahrzad Mojab’s “Gender, Political Islam, and Imperialism” is by far the most ambitious and theoretically sophisticated of the book. Mojab uses a critique of patriarchy – with respect to both the Islamic world and US imperial power – as a base to underline gaps within some contemporary feminist understandings of women’s oppression, and proposes a dialectical and historical-materialist alternative. In Mojab’s view, the failure of certain schools of feminism (particularly post-structuralist feminism) stems from a reluctance to name the fundamental oppositions at play in women’s oppression – indeed, its dialectical logic. It is only with a dialectical approach, Mojab argues, that it is possible to bring into sharp relief the struggles over secularism and women’s oppression, which have in large part defined the contemporary Islamic world, while at the same time eschewing imperialist stereotypes.

The chapter on Michael Ignatieff, Imperial Narcissism, written by David McNally, is perhaps the most current and politically relevant selection in the book, at least within a Canadian context. McNally, by reading Ignatieff against Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, skillfully illustrates the ways in which Ignatieff’s seemingly profound meditations on ethics and human rights brim with outrageous arrogance and equally profound hypocrisy.

The only real problem with this anthology is that it only appears to touch the surface of the ideological underpinnings of the war on terror; I would have appreciated contributions that dug deeper into the “new imperialists’” philosophical foundations. Thom Workman’s essay, “When Might Makes Right” takes a decisive, but lonely step in this regard, in examining how Leo Strauss’ readings of the ancient Greeks have informed the neo-conservative understanding of the modern world and international affairs.

For example, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work State of Exception, released a year earlier than The New Imperialists, provides in my view a far more provocative and penetrating analysis of the ideological problems raised by the War on Terror. Agamben argues, boldly and convincingly, that periodic “states of exception,” or invocations of emergency powers epitomized in our time by the US Patriot Act – and heavily theorized by Carl Schmitt, another intellectual granddaddy of neo-conservatism – are in fact integral to the functioning of the modern state and public law in contemporary “democratic” societies.

It would have been refreshing to see one or two contributors to The New Imperialists take up one of Agamben’s central theses and examine the ways in which the ideological structures of this new imperialism find their roots in the very contradictions of the imperial state itself. Unless we truly understand the ways in which—to paraphrase Marxist critic Walter Benjamin—the current imperial project is “not the exception but the rule,” an emancipatory politics will remain unable to think beyond imperialism itself. That said, The New Imperialists does provide a thought-provoking and worthwhile antidote to a political rhetoric that, behind its modern electronic veneer, really hasn’t changed much since the latter-half of the sixteenth century.



[1] - Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992, 152.

2 - NI, pp 16.

3 - NI, pp 12.