Issue 139, April 2017

Empires and Nation-states

elite carving the world Wiki


Empires and nation-states: Beyond the dichotomy

Siniša Malešević

This introduction to a special issue focuses on the complex and contradictory relationships of empires and nation-states. It contests the traditional views that posit nation-states and empires as the mutually exclusive forms of state organization. The paper identifies the key features of these two ideal types and then briefly reviews the current developments in this field. This introduction also provides a summary overview of the nine contributions that compose the special issue.

Modern empires and nation-states

John Breuilly

Empires and nation-states are not opposed or distinct forms of polity but closely linked forms. Pre-modern empire existed without any contrasting form of polity we might call a nation-state. Rather, they contrasted with non-national state forms such as city-states, small kingdoms and mobile, nomadic polities. These in turn were in constant interaction with any neighbouring empire or empires, perhaps becoming the core of an empire themselves, perhaps taking over all or part of an existing empire, perhaps maintaining some autonomy by virtue of remoteness or lack of attractiveness, perhaps by balancing opposed empires against each other. Empires did not have a national core, and non-empires were not national. By contrast, modern empires have always had a clearly designated nation-state core and a physically separate set of non-national peripheries. This has been crucial to ensuring that when formal empire is ended, both the imperial core and the former colonies are defined as nation-states. But ex-imperial nation-states and ex-colonial nation-states are really two kinds of states. Much contemporary confusion about the prospect for a world order of nation-states revolves round the failure to make that basic distinction.

Taking megalomanias seriously: Rough notes

John A Hall

This article questions the traditional accounts that see nationalism and imperialism as being mutually opposed phenomena. The author engages critically with the influential theories of Ernest Gellner and Andreas Wimmer and argues that the rise of nation-states owes more to the political actions of imperial rulers and less to the behavior of nationalist movements. The essay specifies three mechanisms inside nationalizing empires that matter for nationalism: elite actions, the politicization of minorities and the feelings of those who are politically excluded. In so doing it expands the category of those considered to be nationalist actors. The general idea is that nationalism has a great deal to do with the way empires behave.

Empire in three keys: Forging the imperial imaginary at the 1896 Berlin trade exhibition

George Steinmetz

Germany was famously a latecomer to colonialism, but it was a hybrid empire, centrally involved in all forms of imperial activity. Germans dominated the early Holy Roman Empire; Germany after 1870 was a Reich, or empire, not a state in the conventional sense; and Germany had a colonial empire between 1884 and 1918. Prussia played the role of continental imperialist in its geopolitics vis-à-vis Poland and the other states to its east. Finally, in its Weltpolitik – its global policies centered on the navy – Germany was an informal global imperialist. Although these diverse scales and practices of empire usually occupied distinct regions in the imaginations of contemporaries, there was one representational space in which the nation-state was woven together with empire in all its different registers: the Berlin trade exhibition of 1896. Because this exhibition started as a local event focused on German industry, it has not attracted much attention among historians of colonial and world fairs. Over the course of its planning, however, the 1896 exhibition emerged as an encompassing display of the multifarious German empire in all its geopolitical aspects. The exhibition attracted the attention of contemporaries as diverse as Georg Simmel and Kaiser Wilhelm. In contrast to Simmel and later theorists, I argue that it represented the empire and the nation-state, and not simply the fragmenting and commodifying force of capitalism. In contrast to Timothy Mitchell, I argue that the exhibit did not communicate a generic imperial modernity, but made visible the unique multi-scaled political formation that was the German empire-state.

Myths of nation and empire: The logic of America’s liberal empire-state

Julian Go

While empires and civic-liberal nations have been seen as opposite and even contradictory political forms, this essay argues that they are similar. Both create and depend upon hierarchical differentiation accompanied by exclusion and subjugation. Furthermore, they are logically related. The hierarchies typically attributed to empires are inscribed into the very theoretical and institutional core of civic-liberal nationhood. Using the American ‘liberal empire-state’ as the example, the essay uncovers these hierarchies and discusses two logics of imperial differentiation: the subjugation of bodies and of territory. It suggests that exploring the shifting lines and principles of hierarchization offers the most fruitful analytic strategy for examining the history of nations and empires.

Empires, nations, peoples: The imperial prerogative and colonial exceptions

Partha Chatterjee

The paper traces the continuities between empires and successor nation-states and examines how imperial prerogatives continue to operate in the global system. The author also looks at the failure of postcolonial states to deliver on their promises after achieving national sovereignty. In all this, the focus is on conceptualizing the category of ‘the people’, which is supposedly the source of legitimate power in the contemporary world. In particular the paper zooms in on the historical continuity that characterized traditional empires and is just as present in the context of contemporary world powers – the right to invoke imperial prerogatives to declare colonial exceptions.

The imperial city-state and the national state form: Reflections on the history of the contemporary order

Sandra Halperin

This contribution argues, first, that pre-national forms of state were not displaced or supplanted by a new, national form. What we call the nation-state was not the successor to imperial or city-states but was itself a form of the European imperial city-states that had driven the expansion of capitalism in previous centuries. It argues, second, that national states emerged only after 1945 and only in a handful of states where, through welfare reforms and market and industry regulation, investment and production were made to serve the expansion and integration of national markets. Third, with the dismantling of Keynesian policies in these states, pre-national (pre-Keynesian) structures are resurfacing. What scholars describe as the emergence of ‘post-national spatialities’ and of ‘global cities’ and city regions represents the resurgence of a durable and historically dominant form of state: the imperial city-state form. The ‘re-scaling’ of nation-states and growing prominence of ‘global cities’ and ‘city regions’ are heralding the end of the brief history of actually existing nation-states and the re-deployment of the imperial city-state model.

The time of empire: Temporality and genealogy in the development of European empires

Krishan Kumar

General and comparative studies of empire – like those of revolution – often suffer from insufficient attention to chronology. Time expresses itself both in the form that empires occur, often in succession to each other – the Roman, the Holy Roman, the Spanish, etc. – and, equally, in an awareness that this succession links empires in a genealogical sense, as part of a family of empires. This article explores the implications of taking time seriously, so that empires are not considered simply as like ‘cases’ of a general phenomenon of empire but are treated as both ‘the same and different’. Concentrating on the European empires since the time of Rome, the article shows the extent to which empires were conscious of each other, seeking both to imitate admired features as well as to escape from those thought less desirable. It also shows the difference between ancient and modern empires, considered not so much as different types as in the differences caused by their location in different points in historical time. Comparative studies of empire, the article concludes, must pay attention to both continuity and change, both similarity and difference.

Reflections on the transnational and comparative imperial history of Asia: Its promises, perils, and prospects

Peter C Perdue

Two prominent approaches to the history of empires and nation-states are comparative imperial history [CIH] and transnational history [TNH]. Each group of historians has actively promoted their perspective, but the two have had little interaction. Furthermore, in the history of East Asia, nationalist perspectives have dominated over transnational approaches until very recent times. This article points to new studies that examine Chinese imperial and national history from transnational and comparative perspectives, and encourages further work, including an ecological and environmental viewpoint, that will foster this trend.

The foundations of statehood: Empires and nation-states in the longue durée

Siniša Malešević

Conventional historical and popular accounts tend to emphasize sharp polarities between empires and nation-states. While an empire is traditionally associated with conquests, slavery, political inequalities, economic exploitation and the wars of yesteryear, a nation-state is understood to be the only legitimate and viable form of large-scale territorial organization today. This article challenges such interpretations by focusing on the organizational and ideological continuities between the imperial and the nation-state models of social order. In particular, I focus on the role coercive and ideological apparatuses as well as the transformation of micro-solidarities play in the formation of polities over long periods of time. I argue that although empires and nation-states are different ideal types of polity they are highly compatible and as such prone to metamorphosing into each other. More specifically I explore how, when and why specific coercive-organizational, ideological and micro-interactional processes make this periodic


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