Gaza and Beyond: Examining the Enduring Impact of the Contemporary Empire’s Legacy on Global Dynamics

Never before has an imperial structure so profoundly altered the world, causing distortions in our connections to the earth and one another.

As the recurring Israeli assault on Gaza painfully underscores, the anti-colonial victories of the past century did not secure a lasting triumph. The envisioned decolonization of both the colonizers and the colonized minds, advocated by thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Gandhi, failed to materialize. Despite escalating calls for reparations, restitution, apologies, memorialization, and the establishment of new human and educational values, a significant portion of society remains susceptible to the notion that modern empire represents a legitimate civilizing mission, open to neutral evaluation.

Beyond its evident racist foundations, this persistent presumption thrives on the facile conflation of modern empires with their historical counterparts, such as the Roman, Ottoman, or Mughal empires. Skeptics question why the British empire, for instance, should be singled out for reparations when it is perceived as merely another chapter in the historical narrative.

Anticolonial thinkers have long discredited this viewpoint, highlighting the distinct moral and political indefensibility of European empire. Despite such arguments, the allure of this perspective endures, necessitating a fresh reminder of its empirical shortcomings. Modern European empires, particularly British colonialism, departed significantly from the goals, mechanisms, and consequences of earlier empires.

The unique trajectory of modern history has led us to an unprecedented existential climate crisis. Modern European empires, driven by materialism, territorial control, and the management of social differences, fundamentally reshaped the world. While acknowledging the oppressive nature of earlier empires like the Mughal or Roman, it is crucial to address the specific ways in which European empires shaped the world for the possibility of new, liberated futures.

Anticolonial thinkers of the last century recognized that modern empires uniquely prioritized material desire as the key to progress, ensnaring both the colonized and the colonizer. The invention of the limited-liability, joint-stock corporation in the late 15th century marked the beginning of a new era of state-backed armed trade, disrupting established commercial traditions in the Indian Ocean. This aggressive, warlike mode of business, aimed at monopoly, led to the mass extraction and commodification of botanical and earthly resources, including human beings.

In the era of British dominance, the empire’s policies, while contrasting self-congratulatory rhetoric with the oppression of displaced regimes, resulted in famine and desolation. The empire continued to rely on unfree labor even after abolition in 1833. By the late 19th century, the British ruling elite accepted the ruin of certain peoples and landscapes as a historical necessity for global material progress.

This type of empire compelled its agents and subjects to suppress ethical instincts for the sake of “necessary evil” in the pursuit of future progress measured in material terms. Anticolonial leaders like Gandhi countered this by asserting that freedom lies in present moral accountability, irrespective of consequences. Such ideas challenge the seductive notion propagated by modern empires that material wealth is the measure of civilization.

While earlier empires were also extractive, European colonizers differed in not reinvesting extracted wealth back into the colonized countries. British colonialism, characterized by a lack of roots and a focus on accumulating wealth, contrasted with earlier imperial rulers. The materialism of modern empires, driven by a quest for profit-making opportunities on a global scale, was unprecedented.

This materialism was accompanied by new notions of state power and territorial occupation. Unlike earlier empires with layered notions of sovereignty, modern European empires, particularly the British empire, sought clear, policeable borders and exclusive territorial control. The establishment of regimes of property rights and the commodification of sovereignty exemplified the unique characteristics of modern empire.

The enduring influence of modern empires has consecrated the nation-state as a universal norm in today’s world order. The coeval emergence of the nation-state and modern empire shaped both internal colonialism, forging political spaces like “Britain,” and external colonialism, as seen in the British settling of landscapes in Ireland and North America.

The emergence of a new form of political territoriality abroad was closely linked to the rise of private land ownership in England. While early modern English elites possessed land, ordinary people also had substantial use rights and the power to negotiate rents, fostering inter-generational attachment to the land. However, in the modern period, numerous enclosure acts transformed common lands, heaths, greens, and previously shared “wastes” into private property. Simultaneously, settlers, often displaced from English land, and administrators conquered and privatized land globally.

Similarly, the formation of France involved imperial conquest radiating from Paris to the regions comprising the hexagon today, and the United States and Germany evolved inseparably from both overseas expansion and growth within their immediate regions.

This cultural shift toward exclusive territorial claims marked a significant change in how humans and states interacted with the land. Land ceased to be the existential and spiritual foundation of the community and became exclusionary and alienable property for accumulation purposes, as noted by Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind.

The philosopher Thomas More identified this transformation 500 years ago when enclosed, privately held land ushered in an unprecedented social reality, driving elites toward an insatiable pursuit of wealth and pushing others, haunted by the threat of poverty, into perpetual seeking.

Philosophers like John Locke, responding to resistance triggered by this new reality, argued that those who did not cultivate the land forfeited entitlement to it. For Europeans, sovereignty came to mean “power over land,” whereas many indigenous peoples saw it as “power shared with land.” The difficulty in translating indigenous concepts during colonial treaties underscores the vast difference in perspectives on human and divine power in the world.

Despite the practical reality of porous borders and political fragmentation in European empires, from the late eighteenth century, they promoted the idea of sovereignty as territorial statehood with exclusive claims to bordered space. This instrumental view of land was essential to their terraforming goals.

Indigenous ways of relating to the land, recognized by climate and environmental experts as more sustainable, involved careful stewardship of land, forests, and water resources for perpetual mutual preservation of land and life.

Racial difference became a defining feature under European empires, particularly the British and French. Unlike the Roman empire, where slavery and violence were integral but prejudice based on skin tone was not a defining feature, British and French empires embedded racial distinctions in governance structures, social hierarchies, military practices, policing, urban planning, public health, labor policies, and education. Their imperialism was based on the notion that non-white peoples required paternalistic governance by Europeans.

The cultivation of “scientific” racism in the second half of the 19th century justified colonial rule and violence. The goal of reforming colonial societies to foster uniformity within added further legitimacy. Unlike earlier empires, such as the Mughal empire, which sought power and revenue without seeking to homogenize their subjects, European empires aimed to transform the people they ruled in the name of a “civilizing mission.”

The post-19th-century Ottoman empire, while adopting European-inspired practices and goals, remained in a colonial relationship with European empires. Edward Said acknowledged Istanbul’s dominance of the Arab world but emphasized the “unique coherence” of the “British, French, and American imperial experience.”

Nation-states that emerged from the ruins of European empires adhered to inherited norms, using the goal of nation-statehood as an alibi for colonialism. The critical distinction between European empires and the Asian empires they destroyed is the homogenizing attitude toward people and territory that defines nationalism and the modern state.

Major anticolonial thinkers rejected nation-statehood as the goal of their struggle, recognizing it as an extension of the imperial outlook. They focused on freedom from state oppression, imagining and struggling to realize federal or decentralized alternative futures. This approach remains relevant even in struggles against oppression within states, such as the African American struggle for racial equality in the United States.

The impulse to justify modern empire by insisting on its continuity with earlier empires is not new. British policymakers in empire’s heyday used analogies to earlier empires to soothe their uneasy consciences. However, modern empires exhibited unique features, including material measures of progress, exclusive sovereignty, racial hierarchy, and homogenization, which together distorted human relations and led to the present planetary crisis.

Understanding this past helps grasp the origins of cultural notions that have not served us well, paving the way for redistributing financial, moral, and cultural capital to recover alternate notions and create new history. Failure to reckon with the imperial past has consequences for relations between societies and within them, contributing to disasters like Brexit in the UK and the rise of right-wing parties in Turkey.

The qualities that distinguished modern European empires from earlier ones persist and structure our world. Recognizing these qualities is crucial as we stand on the precipice of environmental collapse, offering an opportunity to make new history and forge a path towards survival.

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