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Red Doors

Do empires ever end?

Empires never really end. The attitudes and mindsets of empire have been kept alive meaning that political and social repercussions of former empires maintain a level of dominance over many societies today. Consider the image of a traditional empire as one of European rule over Third World African or Asian countries. In considering this image, it will be argued that empires have and do take on many different forms and therefore do not end but merely change. The traditional physical empire may be removed but the entirety of empire will not be. In the contemporary, digital world, empire does inevitably appear differently and consequentially will never end for three prominent reasons; the maintenance of imperial mindsets, exploitation of humanitarian aid and the consistency of European capitalist influence through corporate empires. 

 The first reason entails the deep-rootedness of imperialist thought and how this thought has legitimised themes of racial science and the segregation of particular social groups. This imperial mindset keeps empire alive even when the physical empire may have been removed. The idea of empire remains with a mindset of ‘othering’ that keeps many people on the peripheral. The second reason demonstrates how the exploitation of humanitarianism keeps maintains forms of empire. Humanitarian aid is now often being used as a tool towards promoting and maintaining forms of contemporary colonial control. This will be examined through the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Finally, empire does not end because of consistent strength in European capitalist influence demonstrated through corporations as empires. This influence explained by Marxist, notably a European theorist, shows capitalism as the assumed goal in becoming a ‘civilised’ society. This assumption towards democracy and capitalism create divides between those societies that do not uphold this goal and only legitimises the societies that do. 


Empires never end because imperialist mindsets never end. This idea is demonstrated in Conklin’s book, ‘In the Museum of Man’, that explains the development in French anthropology and social theory from 1850 to 1950. Conklin’s major argument is how the prominence of racial science and scientific racism maintained an imperial worldview. Conklin uses the term racial science “to designate the field of inquiry that developed around the study of race in the nineteenth century” (Conklin 2013, 5). A theory that aimed to the organise races into categories using bodily features such skin colour and skull size (craniometry). Anthropologists wanted to professionalise their field by dedicating a science to the study of race that inevitably became massively dehumanising. Scientific racism is in turn used “to designate the efforts of individual anthropologists to publicise their findings of their science for racist political ends” (Conklin 2013, 6). These themes are significant because they highlight the social and political climate of the time; an unwavering belief in racial hierarchy. This was challenged following the renewal of physical anthropology into ’ethnology’, however the consistency to believe in racial divides were strong and imperialist thought was seen throughout. Ethnologists did emerge at the turn of the 20th Century to demonstrate the significance of environmental factors in determining human behaviour, but all research was all presented to ‘white’ public audiences in exhibitions over France, creating an image of peripheral people that they had no access too. 


Conklin’s work is significant because it shows a desire to believe in the biology of race and the entailing categorial segregation of society. This has inspired the world today as these themes are still so prevailing. The heavy focus on racial hierarchy as a scientific discipline in the late 19th Century majorly deepened power dynamics between racial groups. Paul Broca was a significant figure in French social theory and Conklin uses him as a symbol to highlight the political climate that developed so strongly into modernity. The belief held that there was “no fundamental unity of the species” (Conklin 2013, 24) and he wanted to prove that there could be a “lasting connection between some physical feature of the brain and intelligence in a way that correlated to race” (Conklin 2013, 26). Skull was very widely accepted in determining which races were superior, enabling both racial hierarchy and differing levels of civilisation to remain strong. Broca was determined to make the study of humans a legitimate science using empirical evidence. Conklin describes these imperialistic mindsets within anthropology to show the legitimacy of racial hierarchy over an extended period of time. Racial theory was prominently legitimatised through exhibits and museums and makes reference to the reason for Conklin’s title. ‘In the Museum of Man’ alludes to how ‘man’ was being presented to viewers and the way that imperial centers such as these would allow its audiences to think about people on the peripheral. There would be no access to these people, so what was being presented in these exhibits was consequentially the only source of knowledge regarding them. Continuous support for racial divide naturally furthered. Race was seen as a biological study with racist political ends supporting the imperial worldview through museum presentation and research.


These deep rooted mindsets made it difficult for any newer theories to emerge and racial theory of this nature continued all throughout this period and further into World War II. In the late 19th Century, newer theories regarding a science that would try and fight fascism and democratise French society emerged to “dispel prejudices against supposedly inferior races” (Riviere and Rivet, 1932 cited in Conklin 2013, 145), but were faced with challenge. Conklin emphasis the difficulty in spreading a belief that challenged scientific racism due to the adamant nature of supporting colonial perspectives that maintained the structures of empire. Social anxiety around race is a consistent theme in Conklin’s work, furthering this idea. Racial inequality was a difficult battle during WWII and it was only in 1950 that the remaining anthropologists left in France were able to regain justice for their science. “Shocked not only by the genocide but also by the apparent case with which racial science had been coopted to a politics that killed, many intellectuals and ‘race experts’ felt the need to respond, collectively and publicly as a professional community” (Conklin 2013, 326) that led to the UNESCO race statement politically rebuking scientific racism. This moment came out of much conflict described in the period of 1850 to 1950, demonstrating the strenuous effort and immense difficulty in removing racist mindsets. How anthropology supported these mindsets and provided a space for imperialist thought to exist. How it took over 100 years to internationally condemn scientific racism.


However, even with international condemnation, racial divides and colonialist attitudes still remain today following the structures of empire from the past. This argument is demonstrated through the presentation of strong racial themes in Mbembe’s work. He discusses how in the modern day of technology, security has become a major societal factor. A factor which does involve previous regimes of racial categorisation. Mbembe explains this thoroughly in his work: 


    "The fabrication of racial subjects has been reinvigorated nearly everywhere. Alongside anti-Semitic racism, colonial model of comparing humans to animals, and colour prejudice inherited from the slave trade and translated through institutions of segregation, new patterns of racism have emerged that reconstruct the figure of the intimate enemy within mutated structures of hate" (2017, 21). 


This argument is crucial because it highlights the depth of racial and colonial thought through how it has been inspired by acts of empire. How these structures of thought continue through history as a linear line with racism dotted all throughout. Empire will take on new forms, but will never go away due to consistent support for the imperial mindset. The theme of societal security concern is further explained by Mbembe because “protection… has become a question of biopolitics" (2017, 22). This aims to demonstrate the implications of security systems today as they are being built from the same elements of regimes before, specifically, forms of slavery punishment, colonial wars occupation, creation of states of exemption as Mbembe describes. Security systems have bases in empire, which Mbembe discusses as deeply embedded racism that involves biological understandings of distinctions between human groups. He includes the example of the anti-immigration sentiment in Europe with entire groups of people subjected to racial categorisation. This is how protection as a form of security involves previous regimes of racial categorisation as it instils previous knowledge of empire into today. That is the fuel and inspiration for how we live. Borders, mobility of people, migration is a massive way that empire exists today because it is fuelled by racist, imperialist mindsets. 


He demonstrates how these new patterns emerge that maintain a view of imperialism because of the prominence of race as a factor in segregating society. Race is and has been a tool to keep people on the peripheral and upholding empire structures highlighting how they never end. “Race and racism are part of the fundamental process of the unconscious" (Mbembe 2017, 31) to further how deeply engrained racist colonial thought is. Race therefore has many social implications that are drawn with assumptions stemming from dehumanising historical roots. Race was and still is a way of affirming power. Imperialist thought is therefore continuously maintained over all courses of history and are reflected in contemporary times. Both Conklin and Mbembe affirm this argument in the demonstration of racist advocacy that support an imperialist, colonialist mindset that keeps empire alive. Empire will not end with this worldview still so intact and shows how imperialism and an attitude of empire is still very present in everyday life. 


Humanitarian aid is another key insight into how empires are maintained today and see challenge in ever ending. Contemporary forms of humanitarianism have been exploited and result in the maintenance of empire. There can never be assumed universal equality across societies because humanitarianism and colonialism will always have a complicated relationship with each other. Humanitarianism creates an ‘othering’ divide by those who seek help and those providing it, as well as a space for colonisers to continue their ‘civilising mission’. The Palestine-Israeli conflict will be used to bring this argument to life and demonstrate the reality of empire today. 


In May 2012, NATO met in Chicago too discuss the withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan. It was faced with much backlash regarding the public campaign to keep NATO troops, highlighting a strong link between military occupation and ‘progress’. The event was sponsored by Amnesty international, which created the reformed image of violence as a moral and acceptable method of sustaining human rights. “The deployment of violence is necessary in order to protect human rights…logic being that violence protects human rights from the violence that violates human rights.” (Perugini and Gordon 2017, 137), suggests hat violence and human rights may go hand in hand. The modern idea of human rights and humanitarian aid have been transformed with this violent framework. This moral ‘thumbs up’ from liberal organisations to utilise this violent framework is now also being used by conservative groups as well as a methodology of maintaining empire. This is seen explicit with the pro-settler Israeli NGO, Regavim “who routinely use it to suppress freedom and enhance domination (Perugini and Gordon 2017, 137). The strategy technique of adopting human rights language to exploit humanitarianism for colonial gain.  


Perugini and Gordon discuss the three human rights strategies that conservative groups have exploited for colonial gain (2017, 141). The first refers to appropriated language of human rights, which is how groups like Regavim have turned this kind of language into a colonial dialect. The second is the copying of strategies used by liberal human rights NGOs, which Regavim have adopted in the way that they aim to protect their settlement. The evacuation of Jews has become a human rights infringement and violation, demonstration the exploitation performed to enhance imperialist power. The third strategy exploited is the inverted narrative, which transforms the indigenous into the invader. In the case of this conflict, Palestine has become the invader, “displacing Palestinian history and geography, and replacing it with a Zionist imaginary … legitimise [Israeli] claims of justice" (Perugini and Gordon 2017, 140). Israel have used these human rights strategies to switch the ball back into their court and by making themselves the victims. The eradication of past Palestinian struggle and the exploitation for further colonial control is massively significant in showing how empire exists today. How the shape empire has taken has changed also meaning that it is not ending. Imperialist authority has been churned out of humanitarian methods initially targeting those seeking help and colonial removal. Empire will not ever end if strong humanitarianism and colonial force continue to have this strong relationship with each other. A driving force for justice now being exploited will keep empire alive and well.  

Works Cited 


Conklin, Alice L. 2013. In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France 1850-1950. Cornell University Press.

Perugini, Nicola and Neve Gordon. 2017. “Human Rights and Domination.” Amsterdam Law Forum 9(2): 136-146. 


Mbembe, Achille, 2017. Chapter One, ‘The Subject of Race’ in Critique of Black Reason. Duke University Press. 


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Introduction: The Idea of Provincialising Europe. In Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pp. 3-16. 


Asad, Talal. (1987). Are there Histories of Peoples Without Europe? A Review Article. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 


Ghosh, Amitav. 2003. The Anglophone Empire: Can Occupation Ever Work? New Yorker April 7.

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