Niall Ferguson: Well the only ever has been one age of empire, and it began with the dawn of civilization. All of history is the history of empires. There really isn’t much else.
There’s prehistory, and we can try and work out what non-literate hunter-gathers thought, but it’s a tough assignment.
But history is the study of what we sometimes call civilization. It’s the study of life in settlements, very often life in cities. And it doesn’t go much further back than 4,000 years ago. Now for most of the 4,000-year period, the historians concern themselves with when they are writing about civilization, the main political actors are empires, and they dominate the life of the historian. Because empires are so much better at generating evidence, enduring documents, enduring architecture than other politicss. They just last longer, and they build more, and they write more.
So the notion that there is such a thing as a discreet age of empire that isn’t coterminous with the history of civilization is, of course, absurd. There’s no point in the history of civilization when there wasn’t at least one empire, and usually there were more, competing, all coexisting in ignorance of one another’s existence.
In our time there was a wonderful illusion which was generated by thinkers on the left – not only Marxists but also radical liberals – that a thing called imperialism had come into existence quite recently, as recently as the 19th century, and in the 20th century it died, or was going to die. This was the central hypothesis of Jay Hopson of Lenin, and of generations of writers on the left.
But imperialism is something different. Imperialism is a term of abuse that you throw at empires. Empires are always with us. And even when imperialism was proclaimed to be dead, after World War II, both the reigning empires that emerged victorious - the Soviet Union and the United States – carried on behaving like empires. They accused one another of being imperialists, but they themselves both operated very much as empires.
So I don’t think the age of empires is likely to end, unless you think civilization is going to end. And that I wouldn’t rule out.
Recorded on: October 31, 2007