Don't forget the barbarians

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 The Perils of Empire: America and its Imperial Predecessors
The global power elite vs. the rest of the world

In recent years, James Laxer's laptop has taken a pounding. Since 2004, he has written five books, all under labels with broad distribution.

Laxer's latest book, The Perils of Empire, wades into debates about the challenges facing the mandarins of U.S. power as they seek to retain global dominance. He predicts, as others have in recent years, that the global empire built by U.S. elites since the end of World War II is currently in decline.

To make this case, Laxer draws on historical lessons from several previous empires and his assessment of current trends. What results is an ambitious yet succinct work, one that offers several useful insights despite arriving at a dispiriting conclusion (more on that later).

In general, The Perils of Empire suffers from a lack of research depth, an inevitable consequence given its broad historical sweep in relatively few pages. For this reviewer, that alone isn't a problem. When writing for a popular audience, lively broad strokes are preferable to monotonous specificity. In The Perils to Empire, Laxer offers an intelligible 231 pages to provoke wider debate on imperial history past and present. That won't get him invitations to academic historical societies, but it will ensure he gets read, and makes an impact on progressive opinion.

Laxer's most thoughtful comments arise in his discussion of the factors that have caused previous empires to rise and fall. He notes how weak neighbours and ideological rigidity in Egypt prolonged the rule of the Pharaohs, factors also important to U.S. power today. He documents the corroding impact imperial adventures had on the limited scope of Athenian democracy, an outcome equally true for detainees of U.S. "anti-terror" dragnets. He cites the parochial arrogance of Spanish and British imperialism, a façade clearly visible in the daily hysterics of recent White House briefings.

In all of these (and still other) examples, Laxer suggests U.S. elites are engaged in time-honoured conditions and behaviours, many of which confirm a looming expiration date. To chart a more hopeful course, Laxer urges readers, particularly U.S. readers, to acknowledge the current "unilateralist" scope of U.S. Empire, and demand changes to a more "multilateralist" design. Such an outcome, he implies, will ensure global regime change doesn't happen with unduly negative consequences.

Unfortunately for Laxer, this undermines an early pledge offered in The Perils of Empire. In the Introduction, Laxer insists his goal isn't to offer "âe¦a 'how to' book that advises Americans to make use of the lessons of the past to manage their own empire." In the pages that follow, however, this pledge is undone.

While presenting readers an often thoughtful analysis, Laxer's scant attention to movements of resistance, or the forces of anti-Empire, backs him into a corner. In historical terms, empire's dissidents are discussed in 17 pages, with some focus on the cases of Irish and Indian national liberation movements.

Laxer's treatment of contemporary dissent is equally troubling. The "anti-globalization" movement in the early years of our present century, we are told, was "snuffed out" after September 11, 2001. No attention is given to how that radicalization gave rise to a global peace movement in the run-up to the Iraq war, and how this helped isolate U.S. Empire politically to its current position. Laxer gestures at leaders of "pink governments" in Latin America, and resistance fighters in the Arab world, but he doesn't document the social movements at work in these areas, or discuss their own contradictions and challenges.

Sadly, without a developed discussion of anti-imperialist barbarians (both past and present), Laxer is left to argue for a more benevolent, "multilateral" form of American Empire. In doing so, he echoes Democratic Party operatives currently groping for a new lease on life around Barack Obama. This pessimistic conclusion needn't be the end of Laxer's analysis. As he makes plain, leading Democrats have no qualms with the inequality caused by U.S. Empire, they seek only to mitigate its most abrasive features. Surely progressives should engage with history to seek better alternatives than this.

After starting with Laxer, readers should avail themselves of further historical works on the forces of anti-Empire. An excellent updated volume, one recommended by the radical U.S. historian Howard Zinn, is Chris Harman's A People's History of the World (Verso, 2008). There readers will find ample treatment of barbarians against empire, and their historic struggles for a better world.—Joel Harden

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