Why we should fear a world Empire

Universalists dream of a world empire in which a world government works to solve global problems, enforcing the same law all over the world.

There are many different ideologies that envision a world government, ranging from international socialism, to the brotherhood of Islam, to universal humanism. They squabble about what a world government would do or how it would justify its powers, but they share a dream of one world.

There are many different scenarios for how a world government would arise that truly has the power to force all other entities to abide by a single law. Some envision a collapse in ecosystems to force to a moment of enlightenment and contrition, leading to one government. Others have visions of conquest, either by arms or by divine persuasion. Others envisage a world government emerging in the aftermaths of some huge catastrophe, like a nuclear war, whereupon the survivors combine into one government. Yet others think it will emerge gradually from increased connectivity between nations and increased roles for existing international institutions.

I fear such a world government. I believe it would enslave the vast majority and lead to dreadful abuse, no matter how it arises. I have difficulties imagining it capable of remaining intact too, but that is another point.

My fear is based on the forces that disappear with the end of competing nation states.

A major force that disappears with a single governments is individuals voting with their feet, which currently forces countries to compete to attract talent and avoid losing talent. Countries do this because the individual elites in those countries benefit from having smart populations under their care. With a single world government, power is centralised and hence what matters to any local elite is their relation to the central governing system. What migrating populations do or think is then, at best, of indirect concern.

Another force that disappears is the pressure on a local elite to have the support of their population, simply because that is their power base. At present the need for that support leads the elites of countries to want to grow and to look after their populations, at least to some extent. With a centralised world system, that pressure no longer exists.

The loss of any interest in anything local is even worse at the central level, where the only pressure that remains is control of the single system and survival within it. We know from history exactly what that leads to: the centre becomes an Empire that absorbs all independent sources of power. Everything will be brought under central control. Businesses, villages, households, sports entities, culture, etc. Without the pressure to limit its power, the world will move to a Chine-style single Imperial system, but much worse because China always had some foreign pressures and its leadership could be taken over when it started to atrophy too much. When there is but one centralised government, we would get absolute control by an Imperial court.

We also know from centralised Empires what happens if some group wins absolute power and is practically without competitors: everyone gets enslaved and does the bidding of the Emperor, who becomes a god. The whole population then gets pressed into service to God. Previously that included building the Pyramids and the Terracotta armies.

Indeed, we know from human history that the move to absolutism is very rapid in a world empire: in the generation under which power is truly centralised, the deification of the leader(s) already emerges. The monstrous projects of the Chinese emperors began with the very first emperor, he of the Terracotta armies.

I have an even deeper fear, which is that enslavement might be the best future humanity can hope for. This fear comes from the realisation that in a world political system where you have lots of competing blocks that each have the weaponry to wipe out most of humanity, sooner or later most of us will get wiped out, either by accident or malice.

Would a single world empire under the rule of a human elite safeguard us from this though? I fear not. The history of empires has shown us that the fight for control simply shifts from open camps to hidden camps. Competition between the children of the emperor emerges. Different ministries compete. Army generals dream of revolt. Such tensions lead to assassinations and shadow societies at the top. When there is pressure on the whole system, due to climate disasters or a running out of food, the empire cracks and huge civil wars emerge. With devastating technology, the civil wars would be devastating, and perhaps exceedingly quick.

So I fear a world empire lead by humans and expect nothing good from it. My fleeting hope is the end of human control over world politics. A world empire lead by gods might just be workable.

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26 Responses to Why we should fear a world Empire

  1. Alan says:

    It is not inevitable that emperors become divine and becoming divine does not necessarily enhance the power of emperors. Chinese emperors were never treated as gods. Christian, Muslim and Zoroastrian emperors were never treated as gods, but seem to have left one or two large architectural projects behind. Christian Roman emperors even took over the titles of their pagan predecessors and continued to be referred to as the Divine Constantine or the Divine Justinian for half a millennium.

    Japanese emperors were deified in their own lifetimes, but they were also deposed, beaten, starved, poisoned, strangled and generally disregarded at a rate greater than in any other historic monarchy.

    Inka divine hereditary emperors seem to have been much more benign than Aztec non-divine presidents for life. Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotzin, the third last Aztec ruler, had claimed to be divine but that particular claim neither had much impact on his authority during his lifetime nor prevented his own people from deposing, replacing and killing him. Cuitláhuac and Cuauhtémoc, his successors, seem to had other priorities than deification on their minds.

    Lastly, there is is no strong relationship between the emergence of a territorial empire and the emergence of an autocracy. Rome was a territorial empire, at absolute latest, from the end of the Second Punic War in 201 BCE. Autocracy emerged, at the earliest possible date, with Sulla’s first march on Rome in 88 BCE. Britain managed to lose one territorial empire and gain a new one at the same time it was developing parliamentary government and relegating the monarchy to a purely ceremonial role. Except in the highly contested presidential election of 1800 (thanks electoral college) the United States never showed ay sign of developing into an autocracy while it busily conquered a continent.

    An ecumeny, an empire without any neighbours or rivals, has never existed. Romans had to deal with Parthians, Sassanians, and ‘barbarians’. Chinese had to deal with a succession of nomadic empires and a galaxy of outlying states. There is even an old, and highly contested, theory that the Xiongnu defeated by Emperor Wu of Han in 91 BCE are the same as the Huns who arrived on the Roman frontier by 370 CE.

    Mongol rulers established the largest contiguous empire in history without any claim to divinity or even an attempt to impose a religion on their subjects.

    Our technology probably makes an ecumeny feasible now, or in the near future. Its drawing a very long bow to interpret an ecumeny from the non-ecumenical historic empires.

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi Alan,

      I feel you’re getting side-tracked a little here from the main thrust.

      Deification includes some kind of direct mandate from the gods. The Chinese emperors had that with their ‘Mandata from Heaven’. Ditto really for the European kingdoms with sigils like ‘Dieu et mon droit’ (divine right). So heavenly authority is claimed to back up earthly power very quickly. This includes the Japanese emperor who also claimed divinity.

      So sure, in places where emperors did not achieve absolute power and still had competition from some religious group (such as when there was an independent church with its own structures), an emperor could not claim to be a god. That’s why my text mentions that power precondition. But even if they wouldnt have the power to call themselves a god, they’d still find themself some place in the pantheon pretty quickly.

      Still, this is basically a digression. Which Empire from history would you suggest has been a great place for the rest of humanity to live under? Where was life for the ‘common people’ as good as it is now? Power corrupts Alan, that is the point. Are you going to argue it does not corrupt?

      • Alan says:

        Well, you used the term deification about empires where there is no tradition of deification. Traditional China arguably not only had no tradition of deification but no tradition of deities.

        Emperors get surrounded with ritual because it’s safer for them and safer for their subjects. Trump, for example, draws much of his power from disregarding ritual constraints as well as constitutional and legal constraints. The extraordinary level of ritual that surrounds US presidents is not evidence of belief in their divinity.

        It is simply not the case that high ritual status is congruent with deification, or that deification increases the personal power of an emperor.

        An idea cannot be the thing you mention first and most and be irrelevant to your argument.

        As to your last question, all empires behave badly. That is not the same as arguing that all empires behave equally badly or that future empires will behave as badly as current and past empires.

        If absolutely pressed I would probably identify the Kaiyuan era in Tang China (713–741). More seriously I think a negotiated consensual empire of the kind Moz describes far more likely than a rerun of GoT. Or Star Wars.

        • paul frijters says:

          thanks for being game enough to give an example.
          “If absolutely pressed I would probably identify the Kaiyuan era in Tang China (713–741)”

          your example of course makes my argument perfectly. From the whole history of Empires that you are familiar with, you name one period of 28 years some 1300 years ago where you think things were good. This was shortly before the An Lushan rebellion in 755 in which maybe over half of the population of China died, proportionately in terms of world population probably the deadliest conflict in human history. Those are the kinds of disasters we get with the absolutism of Empires: when divisions emerge its a fight to the death….

          • Alan says:

            As I noted, it does not follow, because historical empires always behaved badly, that future empires will always behave badly. Any more, indeed, than it follows that autocracy always emerges from empire or that emperors are always deified.

            The Kaiyuan era ended in catastrophe. So did the antebellum South in the US. So did any number of eras in other empires and in non-impertial states. So what? Which elements for example. of American civilisation civilisation should be abandoned because the Jazz era ended in catastrophe?

  2. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    I think it depends on how we get the world government because that will strongly influence the form. For example the one we have now doesn’t have any real degree of power-over, it’s more a collection of power-through or power-with relationships. Trying to turn that into a dominion other than via a reverse takeover doesn’t seem likely to me.

    You seem to be positing a world government via (military) conquest, and thus all the problems of that style of empire will be writ large, with the additional problems you point out. But that’s almost by definition.

    If instead we posit an EU style creeping bureaucracy that will probably tend more toword government by remote experts with an absolute ban on slavery, very likely a tiny or absent military, and a lot of political diversity… not quite what you fear above.

    Likewise if we had a modern economics style one world we’d see very mobile capital, (even more) widespread slavery and starvation, and a global elite completely disregarding the effect they have on even the richest 1%, let alone the actual pesantry. Not sure whether that’s a dystopia or merely a description of the status quo.

    Equally plausibly we might simply expand democracy both up and down, ending up with a collective of federated states that uses delegated powers to manage global issues on behalf of a fractal arrangement based on Dunbars Number. That’s IMO quite a plasible outcome of experiments like the US and EU, where we discover that actually nation-state is a stupid size for many things and we need both larger and smaller political units. arguably we’re seeing that within the EU now with the splitting of Spain and Britain, but the US is fossilised and seems more likely to shatter the way the USSR did than reorganise peacefully.

    Other options are very much out there, from the nanotech individualism of Doctrow and Brin where the “government” mostly exists as a foil to the protagonists to the anarchism of Ursala Le Guin.

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I agree with Paul

    World Government is a scary idea.

    I want to live in a world where the only mandate of heaven is where it is now – with Club Troppo.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      You’d rather have the current race to see whether it’s climate destruction, ocean destruction or war that gets us down to a sustainable population?

      Seriously, this idea that anarchy* is good and absolute anarchy is better doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy, IMO. What is it about the UN, WTO or even the IWC that makes you think we’d be better off without them?

      Or do they not count as global government since they’re not stomping around with jackboots enforcing the will of the emperor at gunpoint?

      * I think the evidence for cooperative anarchy at a global level is somewhat limited. Regardless of the topic there seem to be defectors.

  4. Ellen says:

    Did anyone notice what happened to the last world empire, the British Empire? It once subdued China, and a lot of other countries. Guess what happened. Some countries revolted and went their own way, notably where the local population, either original or immigrant, outnumbered the imperial governors (America, India), other countries separated in a more friendly fashion, notably where the immigrants from the imperial centre outnumbered the locals (Australia, NZ, Canada). Now there is a loose association including some from both categories based on past ties (the Commonwealth) which might be called ‘friends with benefits’ the main benefit being cricket.

    The past history of human society shows that no empire ever lasted. A world government would never last for the same reasons, plus an extra one: a world government would be impossible to establish.

    • The British spent enough on the warships they needed to monopolise international trade but not that much on troops on the ground- the empire was after all about making money by controlling trade, maintaining a very large worldwide standing army is costly.

      I suppose that some kind of world government could emerge out of the area of AI and the web but if it did we might not even be able to comprehend-recognise it as government as such at all – Hence Paul’s reference to “gods”

    • paul frijters says:

      agreed on both counts Ellen. Amazing how many people truly yearn for an Empire given the history of them. They pray for it.

      • Paul
        Question , was the Dutch East India Company a business or a empire?

        • paul frijters says:

          tough one. Started as a business but gradually morphed into a colonial overlord. Its administrative system was always a bit too small to be an Empire, at least for my taste. It never had interest in truly running things. It was just there to make money. True empires dont need to make money. They are the money, if you know what I mean.

  5. Paul
    “( end of) human control over world politics” didn’t realise that it had started .

    • Chris Lloyd says:

      Have you guys read Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom? We might just be bees arguing about how the hive should be governed.

  6. Paul
    God has given you brains ,don’t waste your time on pessimism and paranoia .
    BTW
    Humans are walking firesticks :instability( transience )are fundamental to the rise to dominance of Homo sapiens .

    Peace be with you
    and do not despair

    • paul frijters says:

      eh thanks John. I am not a pessimist at all, but I do fear the world Empire for the reasons in the text. Like Ellen above, I don’t see one arising because I think nation states will continue to win the fight for loyalty. But this does mean I see the efforts of many universalists as unnecessarily futile.
      peace be with you :-)

      • :-)
        Paul ever read the last page of Calvinos Invisible Cities?
        God bless

        • As it happens it’s on the web:

          “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

          ― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    One question that’s worth considering is the extent of desirable world government. We have a world government now – the UN. It’s super weak, and has no coercive power of its own over nations, though it has some ways of exerting pressure using its power to convene other nations. So given that a lot of us agree that a full-on world government seems scary, at what point of giving the UN more power – and trying to get it to function well – become scary and what reform is in order of the world government we already have – such as it is.

    • paul frijters says:

      yes, and we of course also have the world bank and various other international agencies that have a very limited kind of power. When there is something useful for them to do and there remains clear democratic control, its not so bad. The UNHCR may be a good example of that. Yet, quite a few of those other bodies have become deeply dysfunctional.

      You see quite a few other organisations derailing too when they are no longer under clear democratic control. I am thinking here particularly of the sports organisations like the IOC or FIFA or a few others that have turned into rent-seeking machines and are now barnacles on the body of world affairs.

      So a clear danger with any of those international organisations is that you are creating territories for its management to abuse..

  8. Mike Pepperday says:

    I’m all for integration and I am with Moz. There is no call to see world government as an oppressive empire. IMO a federation of the states of Earth would be no more likely to be an imperial court than any other federation. Oppressive bureaucracy perhaps; imagine Brussels running the world.

    “Competition between the children of the emperor emerges. Different ministries compete. Army generals dream of revolt. Such tensions lead to assassinations and shadow societies at the top.” Very dramatic. But why wouldn’t it be another boring democracy with the usual positive outcomes?

    The EU has done a good job of preventing European wars. If the EU were a proper federal government presumably Greece and the whole financial crisis would not have got so out of hand.

    If Latin America were a federation—which was once a hope—it would presumably be only as corrupt as the USA. Its countries would not have conducted countless wars against each other and they would not now be a permanent impoverished mess.

    Federation terminated Switzerland’s perennial squabbles. Ditto Germany which was unified by force but the result was not particularly oppressive (not internally at any rate). The Australian states are not at war with each other or even seriously plotting. The US federated but it was too weak so they did have a war. One. After that the federation continued to grow and 150 years later there are still no more wars in view (not internally, at any rate).

    Nothing much is going to happen but if it did it wouldn’t be sudden. Progress toward world integration would be gradual. Here are a couple of specific ideas, far more modest yet also without much apparent prospect:

    1. The UN Security Council is an anachronism so expand the permanent members. Expansion is occasionally mooted with Germany and Japan being the most mentioned possible candidates but the two countries show little enthusiasm. Think of the pressure they’d bring if they offered to join on condition that the current single veto rule were changed to require two or three. Germany and Japan could save the world.

    2. Let the UN form its own police force (or peace-keepers or what you will) instead of hiring mercenaries from member countries. The Secretary-general would be more general than secretary which would be a big deal but has no undemocratic implications. To do it the UN would have to have a guaranteed independent income, e.g., by a levy on international finance transactions.

    There are probably lots of other ideas to do with international agreements and courts. But none of these gradualisms look like happening; we will continue to sleepwalk toward ever greater volatility and possible mass tragedy. If any progress does occur, it won’t be a drama—just the outcome of boring negotiations.

  9. Conrad says:

    I generally agree with you Paul that a world empire would be bad — you can add the reason that homogeneity kills creativity and different ways of thinking, and that can either be enforced or simply occur because people start thinking the same way (including across similar countries when one country is too culturally dominant). So it leads to mental and cultural stagnation.

  10. Alan says:

    The Romance of the Three Kingdoms famously opens by saying the empire once united must divide, and once divided must unite.

    Before the Mongol conquest in 1271, only 5 dynasties – Qin, Han, Jin, Sui and Tang –had ever unified China. Qin and Jin lasted less than a generation and Sui lasted less than two generations. The total period of unification was 786 years. As discussed earlier in this thread, Tang was convulsed by a catastrophic civil war in 755 and the dynasty never really recovered control of all China.

    That is a relatively brief unification for a country where history reaches back to 2070 BCE. Perhaps world empires are not a worry because they are inherently unstable.

    • paul frijters says:

      yes, I think they are inherently unstable, but they seem to break up in a sometimes spectacularly violent manner (at least, whilst run by humans). A big risk if we’re talking about a world empire.

      • Conrad says:

        Although that happens, if you look at the populations of these big empires, apart from recently, they often look a lot like sine waves. This suggests that it often isn’t particular events which cause the problems, which is of course memorable and spectacular, it’s slow decline. You could consider the flip-side in that case — that very successful empires have historically caused population increases, and as they go wrong, you get decreases. That might be considered complaining about success.

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