Progressive politics, ideas & culture


Cycles of Empire

This Magazine Staff

Read a great book over the weekend. One chapter had these two passages:
The British ruling classes have acted as if their only hope of continuing power was to put their fate into the hands of the American empire. The process is epitomized in the career of Tony Blair. High rhetoric about partnership among the English-speaking peoples has been used about this process. It cannot, however, cover the fact that Great Britain’s chief status in the world today is to do useful jobs for its masters and to be paid for doing so by the support of the pound and the freedom to provide entertainers and entertainment for the empire as a whole. The American empire may be having its difficulties with France and Germany, but it does not have them with Great Britain.
A few paragraphs later:
Many liberals who do not find the events in Iraq easy to stomach sometimes talk as if what were happening there were some kind of accident — if only that Texan had not got into the White House, etc. etc. Such a way of thinking is worthy only of journalists. Let us suppose that the American ruling class comes to see more clearly what a tactical error it has made in Iraq and allows the war to tail off. It still governs the most powerful empire in the history of the world. It may learn to carry out its policies (e.g. in South America) more effectively and without such open brutalities. But it will have to have its Iraqs if the occasions demand, and we will have to be part of them.
Good stuff, no? Some of you may be surprised to find that the book was

Technology and Empire, by George Grant (1969). I made two changes to the passages above — substituting Iraq for Vietnam, and Blair for Churchill.
There is a tendency — in particular among leftists — to see what is going on right now in the world as an American aberration, as a case of some dumb Texan being controlled by forces of evil that are making the US a complete outlier. If only Kerry had won, the West (and Iraq) would be saved.
George Grant (and Canadian intellectuals in general) were talking about America as an empire long before it became fashionable to do so in Europe and among journalists. Grant saw that the basic patterns of this empire, and how the rest of us would react, were conditioned by structures that go far deeper than presidential personalities or even party politics.
George Grant wrote a short book called Time as History. His fellow tory Harold Innis wrote an article called “A Plea for Time.” Both argued that one of the great dangers in our society was that our media have a “spatial bias”, meaning they enabled the conquering of territory, while encouraging a temporal forgetfulness that hides from us the true patterns of history.

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