Before Rome, there was Carthage. Before Carthage, there were Greece, Macedonia, Egypt, Assyria, China. Where history has a record, it is a record of empire.
During modern times, international affairs have been dominated by empires. The Great War was a war between empires. During the first three years, the two chief contestants were the British Empire on the one hand and the German Empire on the other. Behind these leaders were the Russian Empire, the Italian Empire, the French Empire, and the Japanese Empire.
The Peace of Versailles was a peace between empires. Five empires dominated the peace table—Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States. The avowedly anti-imperial nations of Europe—Russia and Hungary—were not only excluded from the deliberations of the Peace Table, but were made the object of constant diplomatic, military and economic aggression by the leading imperialist nations.
Empires do not spring, full grown, from the surroundings of some great historic crisis. Rather they, like all other social institutions, are the result of a long series of changes that lead by degrees from the pre-imperial to the imperial stage. Many of the great empires of the past two thousand years have begun as republics, or, as they are sometimes called, "democracies," and the processes of transformation from the republican to the imperial stage have been so gradual that the great mass of the people were not aware that any change had occurred until the emperor ascended the throne.
The development of empire is of necessity a slow process. There are the dependent people to be subjected; the territory to be conquered; the imperial class to be built up. This last process takes, perhaps, more time than either of the other two. Class consciousness is not created in a day. It requires long experience with the exercise of imperial power before the time has come to proclaim an emperor, and forcibly to take possession of the machinery of public affairs.
The chief characteristics of empire exist in the United States. Here are conquered territory; subject peoples; an imperial, ruling class, and the exploitation by that class of the people at home and abroad. During generations the processes of empire have been working, unobserved, in the United States. Through more than two centuries the American people have been busily laying the foundations and erecting the imperial structure. For the most part, they have been unconscious of the work that they were doing, as the dock laborer, is ordinarily unconscious of his part in the mechanism of industry. Consciously or unconsciously, the American people have reared the imperial structure, until it stands, to-day, imposing in its grandeur, upon the spot where many of the founders of the American government hoped to see a republic.
The early history of the country presaged anything but this. The colonists were seeking to escape tyranny, to establish justice and to inaugurate liberty. Their promises were prophetic. Their early deeds put the world in their debt. Forward looking people everywhere thrilled at the mention of the name "America." Then came the discovery of the fabulous wealth of the new country; the pressure of the growing stream of immigrants; the heaping up of riches; the rapacious search after more! More!
The American Empire does not rest upon a political basis. Only the most superficial portions of its superstructure are political in character. Imperialism in the United States, as in every other modern country, is built not upon politics, but upon industry. The development of American industry, during the hundred years that began with the War of 1812, led inevitably to the unification of business control in the hands of a small group of wealth owners.
"Every man for himself" was the principle that the theorists of the eighteenth century bequeathed to the industrial pioneers of the nineteenth. The philosophy of individualism fitted well with the temperament and experience of the English speaking peoples; the practice of individualism under the formula "Every man for himself" seemed a divine ordination for the benefit of the new industry.
The eager American population adopted the slogan with enthusiasm. "Every man for himself" was the essence of their frontier lives; it was the breath of the wilderness. But the idea failed in practice. Despite the assurances of its champions that individualism was necessary to preserve initiative and that progress was impossible without it, like much other principle—fine sounding in theory, it broke down in the application.
The theory under which the new industrial society began its operations was "every man for himself." The development of the system has made every man dependent upon his fellows. The principle demanded an extreme individualism. The practice has created a vast network of inter-relations that leads the cotton spinner of Massachusetts to eat the meat prepared by the packing-house operative in Omaha, while the pottery of Trenton and the clothing of New York are sent to the Yukon in exchange for fish and to the Golden Gate for fruit. Inside as well as outside the nation, the world is united by the strong hands of economic necessity. None can live to himself, alone. Each depends upon the labor of myriads that he has never seen and of whom he has never heard. Whether we will or no, they are his brothers-in-labor—united in the Atlas fellowship of those who carry the world upon their shoulders.
The theory of "every man for himself" failed. The practical exigencies involved in subjugating a continent and wresting from nature the means of livelihood made it necessary to introduce the opposite principle,—"In Union there is strength; coöperation achieves all things."
The business men of the late nineteenth century had been nurtured upon the idea of competition. "Every man for himself and the devil take the hindermost" summed up their philosophy. Each person who entered the business arena was met by an array of savage competitors whose motto was "Victory or Death." In the struggle that followed, most of them suffered death. The first object of the economic struggle is wealth. The second is power. The gratification of personal wants is only a minor element in the lives of the rich. After they have secured the things desired, they strive for the power that will give them control over their fellows.
The possession of things is, in itself, a narrow field. The control over productive machinery gives him who exercises it the power to enjoy those things which the workers with machinery produce. The controls over public affairs and over the forces that shape public opinion give him who exercises it the power to direct the thoughts and lives of the people. It is for these reasons that the keen, self-assertive, ambitious men who have come to the top in the rough and tumble of the business struggle have steadily extended their ownership and their control.
The man fighting for bread has little time to "turn his eyes up to the eternal stars." The western cult of efficiency makes no allowances for philosophic propensities. Its object is product and it is satisfied with nothing short of that sordid goal.
The members of the wealth owning class are relieved from the food struggle. Their ownership of the social machinery guarantees them a secure income from which they need make no appeal. These privileges provide for them and theirs the leisure and the culture that are the only possible excuse for the existence of civilization. The propertied class, because it owns the jobs, the industrial products, the social surplus, the channels of public opinion and the political machinery also enjoys the opportunity that goes with adequately assured income, leisure and culture. The members of the dominant economic class hold a key—property ownership—which opens the structure of social wealth. Those who have access to this key are the blessed ones. Theirs are the things of this world. The property owners enjoy the fleshpots. They hold the vantage points. The vital forces are in their hands. Economically, politically, socially, they are supreme. If the control of material things can make a group secure, the wealth owners in the United States are secure. They hold property, prestige, power.
The owners of American wealth have been molded gradually into a ruling class. Years of brutal, competitive, economic struggle solidified their ranks,—distinguishing friend from enemy; clarifying economic laws, and demonstrating the importance of coördination in economic affairs. Economic control, once firmly established, opened before the wealth owning class an opportunity to dominate the entire field of public life.
Before the property owners could feel secure in their possessions, steps must be taken to transmute the popular ideas regarding "property rights" into a public opinion that would permit the concentration of important property in the hands of a small owning class, at the same time that it held to the conviction that society, without privately owned land and machinery, was unthinkable.
Many of the leading spirits among the colonists had come to America in the hope of realizing the ideal of "Every man a farm, and every farm a man." Upon this principle they believed that it would be possible to set up the free government which so many were seeking in those dark days of the divine right of kings. The evils of Feudalism and of landlordism were well known to the American colonists who were under the impression that they arose not from the fact of ownership, but from the concentration of ownership. The resources of the new world seemed limitless, and the possibility that landlordism might show its ugly head on this side of the Atlantic was too remote for serious consideration.
With the independence of the United States assured after the War of 1812; with the growth of industry, and the coming of tens of thousands of new settlers, the future of democracy seemed bright. Daniel Webster characterized the outlook in 1821 by saying, "A country of such vast extent, with such varieties of soil and climate, with so much public spirit and private enterprise, with a population increasing so much beyond former examples, ... so free in its institutions, so mild in its laws, so secure in the title it confers on every man to his own acquisitions,—needs nothing but time and peace to carry it forward to almost any point of advancement."
"So free in its institutions, so mild in its laws, so secure in the title it confers on every man to his own acquisitions,"—the words were prophetic. At the moment when they were uttered the forces were busy that were destined to realize Webster's dream, on an imperial scale, at the expense of the freedom which he prized. Men were free to get what they could, and once having secured it, they were safeguarded in its possession. Property ownership was a virtue universally commended. Constitutions were drawn and laws were framed to guarantee to property owners the rights to their property, even in cases where this property consisted of the bodies of their fellow men.
Surrounded by constitutional guarantees, armed with legal privileges and prerogatives and employing the language of liberty, the private property interests in the United States have gone forward from victory to victory, extending their power as they increased and concentrated their possessions.
The American worker is a citizen of the richest country of the world. Resources are abundant. There is ample machinery to convert these gifts of nature into the things that men need for their food and clothing, their shelter, their education and their recreation. There is enough for all, and to spare, in the United States. But the American worker is not master of his own destinies. He must go to the owners of American capital—to the plutocrats—and from them he must secure the permission to earn a living; he must get a job. Therefore it is the capitalists and not the workers of the United States that are deciding its public policy at the present moment.
The American capitalist is a member of one of the most powerful exploiting groups in the world. Behind him are the resources, productive machinery and surplus of the American Empire. Before him are the undeveloped resources of the backward countries. He has gained wealth and power by exploitation at home. He is destined to grow still richer and more powerful as he extends his organization for the purposes of exploitation abroad.
The prospects of World Empire are as alluring to the American capitalist as have been similar prospects to other exploiting classes throughout history. Empire has always been meat and drink to the rulers. The master class has much to gain through imperialism. The workers have even more to lose. The mere fact that the workers are so busy with the routine of daily life is in itself a guarantee that they will mind their own business.
The average worker is engaged, outside of working hours, with the duties of a family. His wife, if she has children, is thus employed for the greater portion of her time. Both are far too preoccupied to interfere with the like acts of other workers in some other portion of the world. Furthermore, their preoccupation with these necessary tasks gives them sympathy with those similarly at work elsewhere. The plain people are the bricks which the imperial class uses to build into a wall about the empire. They are the mortar also, for they man the ships and fill up the gaps in the infantry ranks and the losses in the machine gun corps. They are the body of the empire as the rulers are its guiding spirit. The work of empire building falls to the lot of the workers. The profits of empire building go to the exploiting class.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg eBook of The American Empire, by Scott Nearing)