Niall Ferguson: How will this age be remembered?
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
All of history is the history of empires.
Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.
No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.
In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.
- Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
- The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
- Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
A completely unexpected discovery beneath the ice.
- Scientists find remains of a tardigrade and crustaceans in a deep, frozen Antarctic lake.
- The creatures' origin is unknown, and further study is ongoing.
- Biology speaks up about Antarctica's history.
For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.
- In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
- This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
- Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.