I’m taking an ancient history class this semester, with a focus on empires and imperialism. Friday, we began a discussion on what makes an empire and the meaning of imperialism. While not a conclusive list to what is inherently part of an empire, we noted the following selection. First is a monopoly of force. An empire, by definition, is expansionist in nature. In order to extend, previously established entities within the targeted region of expansion must be compelled to allow that expansion. In most cases, if not always, compelling someone else to allow you to have some control over them when they had governed themselves previously requires some means of force, whether military or otherwise.
This leads into the second aspect of “empire”: when any politico-cultural unit attempts to take control of another unit, that first unit inherently, whether intentionally or unintentionally, imposes its values on the other. This explains why it is that in most cases force must be used to compel one to allow another control. Consider a master-slave relationship. For any human being who has had his or her liberty removed, he or she will naturally be resistant to the establishment of another’s control. Why? Because their ability to choose how they live has been over-run. Someone else dictates their lifestyle; this eventually affects their attitude, mindset, and worldview, and they adapt to their new lifestyle, even if it is not the one they would choose.
Finally, there is an imbalance of relationship between the two societies involved. For example, in most of Rome’s conquests, the idea of Rome installing political control over another kingdom was sold as being mutually beneficial. The conquered political leader was a “friend” of Rome; the Latin gives us the term “client”, implying that “We are making your life better by establishing our cultural norms as yours.” However, despite multiple forms of relationship between Rome and her subject states (from the conquered “allies” of Italy to the “independent dependency” of Egypt before 30 B.C.), any state who resisted Rome’s leverage (on Roman terms) faced the likelihood of severe reprisals. Therefore in reality, the supposed “friends” of Rome were really her conquests for her own economic and political benefits.
During this discussion, I started thinking about imperialism in today’s context. While it may be a negative term that our modern, democratic society tries to avoid, let’s step back and define it. According to Meriam-Webster, imperialism is:
The policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas; broadly : the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence.
The term is best represented by the British Empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It also stands as a point of controversy in American history; even, it may be argued, continuing up to American involvement in the Middle East today. But I want to look at it in terms of business. When we think of business, we tend to think of the “corporate world”. That carries a certain set of connotations with it. It is the epitome of a competitive culture: competing against one another to climb the “corporate ladder”, competing against other businesses for market share, and competing between departments for any number of reasons. In my mind, this constant “dog-eat-dog” world fits within the confines of our definition of imperialism: “the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence.” Is this a healthy system? Or is there a better way of doing it? I’d love to hear your feedback on this! Do you see a connection between imperialism and the contemporary corporate culture; and if so, is there anything wrong with that?