Scenario: After the Nanosecond Empire

11Sep11

It seems empires ain’t what they used to be.  Various ancient and even medieval ones (centered in e.g., China, Rome, Turkey) lasted for centuries and were essentially unshakeable within their primary domains.  Developments in transportation and other technologies that have made modern empires (e.g., Spanish, British) more global also seem to have made them more vulnerable.  For whatever reason, they seem to have been trending toward shorter durations and more complex bases of power.  It does not appear, for example, that a nonviolent independence movement, successful in India in the 1940s, would have been particularly effective in ancient Rome; nor was it possible for anything like a Nazi Germany to emerge from the ashes of previous war and nearly bankrupt the Caesars within the space of a decade.

America’s version of empire has been simultaneously the most global and yet the least obvious.  With few exceptions, it has indulged only limited and brief physical control of colonies (in e.g., the Philippines) and yet has enjoyed worldwide influence.  That influence has been based on weaponry to some extent, as with all empires before it; and yet the primary purpose of the weaponry seems to have been to safeguard control via money.  Capitalist imperialism could be said to have contributed to a kind of freedom, worldwide, to anyone willing to help Americans live wealthier and more comfortable lives.  That’s not the same as a simplistic and more ancient urge to control territory for purposes of ego or defense.

If there is a trend in this, it seems that the world’s next major empire will be even more brief, globally pervasive, complexly vulnerable, and idea-based.  To invent an example, an empire could conceivably be created by an aristocracy (e.g., scientists, or the super-rich); its capacity for physical coercion could be based on new technologies (e.g., neurological implants); and global allegiance to it could emerge from a widespread perception that it provides a route to a better life, just as the present global orientation toward money seems to depend, in part, upon the belief that commercial modernity provides a better life than the various medieval circumstances of chaos, banditry, theocracy, and warfare that are widely believed to have preceded it.

Such an idea-based empire could be brief and heavily contested, in the sense that different aristocratic cliques (e.g., scientists or super-rich people with divergent convictions or objectives) could find themselves engaged in recurrent palace warfare — in struggles that, however murky, could have enormous consequences for the rest of humanity (with e.g., the flick of a switch, when a competing clique does attain a tenuous ascendancy).

At the same time, to the extent that such control struggles did become concentrated within the palace, it could develop that idea-based empires have been in the process of becoming more long-lived — at the very time that physically based empires have been fading faster.  If an empire is understood in terms of its ideas (e.g., modernity) rather than its nationality (e.g., British, Russian), one could speculate that the money phase of empire has been growing more firmly established for centuries, and that a post-money phase, building on such a trend, could endure for millennia.

One can imagine, for instance, that eons of human and prehuman coexistence (within e.g., hunter-gatherer tribes) may someday seem to be the norm toward which medieval society was attempting to return — that, in other words, a future medievalistic global society may view Europe’s Middle Ages as a relatively brief and unfortunately interrupted first step, in a seemingly inevitable return to a more enduring communitarian worldview (within which a sufficiently sophisticated ruling class might prudently make itself fairly invisible).  There might be overlords; they might continue to extract from the populace; but they might do so in such a delicate way as to leave unruffled the sense that life just goes on forever, in a very peaceful and reassuring manner.  Modernity, individualism, money — these current ideas could come to be seen as elements of a single empire under which we now live, to which Americans, Chinese, and everyone else contributes in varying degrees.  And all of these ideas may come to be seen as no less primitive and distant than the Middle Ages now seem to us.  It might not even be especially difficult to reach that point.  For instance, global environmental catastrophe, by itself, could convince future generations that the ideas upon which we have based our world order were simply absurd.

At present, it does not appear likely that China will become a dominant global superpower.  Anything is possible — for instance, Chinese scientists could someday develop and use a highly contagious virus that exterminates non-Asian humans — but present information suggests, rather, that China, like the physically based empires before it, is moving toward an ever more limited, vulnerable, and complex form of empire.  Its potential adversaries are more linked than were those who confronted any prior empire-in-waiting; its own citizens (or at least the influential ones) are probably more informed about the possibilities, limits, and costs of empire than were the citizens of any prior empire; and at the same time China does not presently display the internationalism that has been an intrinsic part of the U.S., with its ancestry hailing from so many different countries.  China’s route to empire seems likely to be a throwback to a physically based attempt to battle it out, inch by inch, against a world full of well-equipped adversaries.  Its money — not its capacity for steel, coal, and cement, except as financial rather than military resources — will be its primary asset in that struggle; and while that money will go far, it does not appear that it will go as far as American money did.

Without denying the past and continuing importance of physical power and, in more recent centuries, of financial power, for purposes of building empire, this post suggests that the path to comprehensive and enduring world dominance may run through the realm of ideas — that, in other words, the next large development in imperialism may be a relatively gradual if not surreptitious process emerging from collective human experience, guided and conceptualized — if not frankly manipulated and marketed — by knowledgeable observers of such processes.

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