July 3rd, 2006


Empires and dance

How do you define an empire? The question comes up in a New York Review of Books review of Harvard prof Charles Maier's new book Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. Maier says that the US, post WW2, sought to be both a territorial and a post-territorial empire:

"The US compromise between traditional empire and a Kantian comity of democratic republics was to establish American "hegemony" over the "free world," backed by military commitments and military bases, and underpinned by nuclear weapons and Ford assembly-line technology. Maier distinguishes between the "empire of production" and the "empire of consumption." In the first phase, the American productive system was transferred to its allies through Marshall Aid and other aid packages; Phase II's "empire of consumption" was based on the dominance of the dollar, and culminated in the "twin deficits" of today—the budget deficit and the balance of payments deficit."

I'd like to advance a sociological definition of what Maier calls "post-territorial empire" (something, by the way, the US has yet to achieve: it still has military bases all over the world, and has recently started re-fighting -- and re-re-fighting, because they never quite seem to get won and done -- wars of imperial conquest). Okay, so here's my definition:

Post-territorial empire -- the empire of influence -- is the assumed convergence of diverse habitus towards the habitus of one specific culture, a culture which nevertheless presents its specificity as something universal.

Commentary on this post-territorial empire often hides the specificity of the imperial hub, refuses to admit that it's situated. Such commentary assumes that all difference to, all resistance to, the dominant habitus is temporary, frail and doomed.

I seem forever to be battling this specificity-hiding, convergence-assuming behaviour. Journalists, essayists, bloggers and cultural commentators are forever passing off the Anglo-American way of doing things as some kind of norm to which everyone is inevitably converging. All resistance to this norm, we learn time after time, is something frail, dwindling towards extinction, glimpsed momentarily in a process of tumbling or submitting to a Darwinian-style market -- a triumphant and unopposed Anglo-capitalist system all-crushing in its inevitability. America everywhere! (Just don't call it that...)

Specificity-hiding is itself hidden in innate assumptions and future projections. The word "increasingly" comes up a lot. Increasingly, we learn, Japanese women are becoming [something which more closely resembles American women, but don't call it that]. Increasingly, dirigiste technocracy is falling to market control. But, as Maier points out, "today's market model of globalization hides the role of US multinationals in spreading "imperial employment patterns" through offshore production." In other words, the universal habitus is actually a specific habitus, belonging to the corporations of a specific nation, and benefitting one specific nation.

There was an interesting section in the Modernism show I saw last week at the V&A headed "Americanism". It showed a vogue, in the early-to-mid 20th century, for the uncritical adoption of specifically American industrial processes, like Fordism. I found it fascinating because in our own time we don't talk about "Americanism" any more. We have euphemisms which mean pretty much the same thing. We talk about "markets", "freedom", "reform", "rock and roll", "human rights", "globalization", "democracy" and so on, but really we mean "the American system". Or perhaps "an idealized version of the American system". Because the reality of the specific American system is that it's financially shaky, increasingly dynastic, decreasingly democratic, ecologically toxic, and no great supporter of freedom or human rights. And as ideology gets more and more unmoored from observable reality, it gets increasingly visible as... mere ideology.

"To be sure," says Robert Skidelsky in his review of Maier's book, "there is a strong ideological element in the current US drive for empire, especially among neoconservatives in the academy and Washington think tanks. It is based on the belief that the West is best, and will only be secure if the Western way becomes the universal norm. Those who resist the embrace of the West are thought to be savages and must be persuaded, or forced, to recognize the error of their ways."

At the end of July a journalist will interview me about Berlin for a British newspaper. The article will ask how long the urban utopian idyll enjoyed by Berlin's artists, musicians and hipsters can last, and whether Berlin won't soon become a "free market", as expensive as London or New York.

The "inevitable convergence towards Anglo-market norms" theme hinted at here will not set the tone of my answers. I don't believe that's the case. It's Anglo-market norms which are in crisis, not the Berlin alternative to them. I plan to tell the paper that, far from being an endangered enclave or anomaly, Berlin is in fact a laboratory for future ways of doing things. This city is not just post-industrial, but post-imperial. It's a divergence machine.

I think, if you asked around, you'd find a surprising number of the artists here would agree with that view. The post-imperial future is what we're all brainstorming here. It's why we're not in New York or London. We're working on very specific questions, questions of habitus. What will music sound like after the empire? What will food taste like? How will people dress? How many hours a day will they work? What will their houses look like? How will they dance?