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  • The Imperial Character of the Contemporary World Order
  • Martin Coward (bio)
David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (London: Verso, 2003)

The predominant motif in investigations into questions concerning the nature and possibilities of contemporary world order has been that of ‘empire’. A small industry of speculations on the imperial nature of our times has appeared since late 2001. To the texts under consideration here (David Harvey’s The New Imperialism and Michael Mann’s Incoherent Empire),1 could be added the work of authors such as Alain Joxe (The Empire of Disorder),2 Emmanuel Todd (After the Empire),3 Derek Gregory (The Colonial Present),4 Michael Ignatieff (Empire Lite: Nation-building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan),5 and Niall Ferguson (Colossus: The Rise and Fall of The American Empire),6 as well as articles in scholarly journals and news media.7 This writing has received added impetus from the global popularity (despite multiple scholarly critiques) of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s inquiry into the contemporary global capitalist world order: Empire.8 Indeed, this resurgence of interest in imperial political forms has prompted Martin Shaw to note that a ‘consensus seems to be emerging that empire is a neglected category of’ political analysis.9

This emergent literature is often at pains to delineate a distinction between ‘imperialism’ on the one hand and ‘empire’ on the other. This distinction is intended to capture a break from twentieth century Marxist understandings of European colonial imperialism. Such accounts are taken to be predicated on overly reductionist accounts of the relationship between the political and the economic and bound to the explanation of the historically particular form of nineteenth and twentieth century European colonial empires. Indeed, this emergent literature implicitly follows the argument in Hardt and Negri’s Empire that the present world order is ‘something altogether different from “imperialism”’.10 Even David Harvey, whose work delineates the historical continuities (as well as transformations) in relations between state sovereignty and global capitalism and thus draws extensively upon Marxist understandings of the imperialism of nineteenth and twentieth century European colonialism, feels the need to distinguish – in the very title of his book – between such ‘old’ imperialism and a ‘new’ imperialism specific to the contemporary era. This distinction is intended to show the specificity of contemporary world politics and indicate that whilst resonances of imperial forms might be discernable, today’s empire is different to yesterday’s. ‘Empire’ (or the ‘new imperialism’) is thus intended to indicate that the emergent contemporary world order is a progression to a new form of order different to that of the classical trans-continental or nineteenth/twentieth century European colonial empires, to the Westphalian states system, and to the post-Cold War interregnum of globalisation (of capitalism and governance).11

However, it can be argued that this putative progression is somewhat disingenuous. The emergent consensus on the imperial nature of our times is not designed to indicate a break between the post-Cold War era and a brand-new twenty-first century imperial age. Speculations regarding the imperial form of world order after 9/11 arose first of all in commentaries that argued, contrary to simplistic Hobbesian-statist accounts, that the contemporary conjuncture had more in common with the political form of the Roman Empire than the mythical Westphalian states system.12 In the wake of 9/11 many statist analyses of world politics attempted to demonstrate that this event and its possible responses represented the final nail in the coffin of cosmopolitan-universalist notions of globalisation and the reassertion of the nation-state as a political entity defined by the twin poles self-interest and sovereignty conceived of as ‘constitutional separateness’.13 In contrast to such arguments it was asserted that the contemporary world order may indeed be a return to the past, but to a pre-statist, imperial past.14 Whilst such an argument is problematic in its disavowal of the possibility of transformation and novelty in world politics (regarding political possibility to lie in repetitions of historically extant forms), it does indicate that the concepts of ‘empire’ and ‘new imperialism’ are deployed not because of their radical singularity to...

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