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The Solution to Empire is… More Empire.

Brendan Simms of The New York Times argues that Europe is repeating the follies of the Holy Roman Empire. On the surface, his piece is striking given American publications generally avoid even recent history. But upon careful reading it proves nothing more than sophistic pseudo-intellectualism that over-simplifies two histories, Europe’s and our own.
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By Arsalan Ibrahim

At least that’s the recipe served up by Brendan Simms of The New York Times. In his recent op-ed, he puts forward his formula for Euro-zone recovery predicated on the notion that Europe is repeating the follies of the Holy Roman Empire. This piece is, on the surface, striking for a paper that caters to an American culture that avoids history even when it’s a few years old. But upon careful reading it proves nothing more than sophistic pseudo-intellectualism that over-simplifies two histories, Europe’s and our own. While he’s correct in recognizing the strong parallels between the current state of the European union and the Holy Roman Empire of yore, he thoroughly misses the mark in his analysis on two major points.

“They [American Colonies], too, were profoundly divided…

The existing Articles of Confederation were too weak for the task…

…the patriots embraced the model of the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707.”

With these statements he does a number of things just beneath the surface. First and foremost, he applauds the American approach as the sound course of action, albeit indirectly through a nod to the wisdom of the then still developing “special relationship”.  Second he ignores the glaring advantages that the US and Britain have over the member states of the EU, most notably sustained existing neo-empires; Britain through its commonwealths and the US through its dramatic global military presence funded almost entirely by corporate taxes and at the behest of those interests.

“The resulting American Constitution created a powerful executive presidency and a representative legislature and made possible the creation of a consolidated national debt, a national bank and eventually a strong military, all of which in time turn the United States into the superpower it is today.”

Lastly, and most remiss, is his omission of the fact that our beloved country would soon have to fight a terrible civil war in order to enforce those federal powers; sealing them with blood. Also, among that litany of American constitutional and economic assets he ignores entirely the existence of a vast slave population that not only gave the US unprecedented advantages in manpower and technical prowess, but also would provide a cultural legacy that would become America’s exported national identity.

But it’s in that willful bit of ignorance that we find the real heart of the matter. America and its intellectuals, like Europe, suffers from that same failing that plagued the O.G. Roman Empire and the Greek city-states; the dependence on the feared and despised “other”. It is from the city-states that we derive the concepts of patriotism and its companion concepts such as the “founding fathers”. The Greeks, and consequently all citizens of every European republic, lived in a world in which the only people to experience the full fruits of democratic life were the patrios (son’s of the fathers). This insured that the bloodlines of the original founders of the city, a perpetual tiny minority constituting an oligarchy, were enshrined with citizenship whilst all others (typically the overwhelming majority of the populous including all women) were relegated to various forms of slavery; even noble women were seen as the owned property of their fathers “given-away” to their husbands for a bride-price. This social order of course led to dramatic revolts that inevitably overturned entire city-states. The reforms of Draco, or the Draconian laws, were primarily concerned with the issue of gang-violence and murder among the lower classes; this should be sounding all too familiar to modern ears. However, the modern nation-state attempted to dispense with this common cause of conflict throughout European history by creating the ‘national identity’. But old ideas die-hard and they each inevitably produced a tiny minority of 1st class citizenry leaving the rest to fight over various degrees of 2nd class citizenship. The USA was the outlier in that one could actually buy 1st class citizenship, unless you were Black, Jewish, Native American, Chinese or any other recognizable “other”; which of course is the basis for the “American Dream”.

At this point one may find the congruence drawn between Greco-Roman patrios and the patriots of the modern nation-state a bit of a stretch. As well you should question any theory stated with such certainty no matter how compelling. But consider this quote from James Madison in Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787:

“If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

The “observations” to which he was referring were of the possibility of fair and free elections being held in the England of his day. In which case, he surmised, the power would shift from the landed elite to the commons, a prospect that terrified James Madison. Among our most notable “Founding Fathers” we find the legacy of that old Greco-Roman tradition of distrust of the “others” and the commons that lingers in republican democracy right up the present day, like a foul humor. Now Brendan Simms found it fitting to quote Madison regarding his criticism of the Holy Roman Empire but made no mention of his reservations toward the prospect of democracy in England, while applauding his advocacy of the Anglo-Scottish Union. Now these sorts of cherry picked quotes are nothing new to The New York Times. Their op-eds happily quote Madison when it suits the stated agenda but careful avoid “the Founding Fathers” when the state directly contradicts them. For example, in the face of decades of expanded military and executive power we’re hard pressed to find in the pages of The New York Times the following quote from Madison or any of its ilk:

“A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.”

All this may seem like a digression until you consider the present voluntary and selective ignorance of the past by our intellectual class. Which brings us right up the present, as we see a Europe plagued by the sins of the fathers. The empires of old Europe flung afar their unwanted populations across the globe and in turn, became hopelessly dependent on foreign resources and labor to sustain their economies. The constant influx of the downtrodden “others” went largely unnoticed so long as they remained silent and servile. But such tolerance has broken down in the face of economic downturn in which even “enlightened” European societies like Sweden have taken up violence and revulsion toward the “others”.

Truth be told, what “turned the United States into the superpower it is today” is that they took things from other people, a lot of things; and they were just better at it than everyone else. The Holy Roman Empire had no colonial holdings of any significance and one can almost directly correlate the growth of a given European nation from the 17th century to the present with its imperial holdings outside Europe. It would be the squabbles over these holdings that would lead us into two world wars. After the destruction of Europe during WWII, it would again be neo-colonial holdings in Africa that would determine the fate of European nations, as America would allow Europe to use the “Dark Continent” to rebuild as it focused its imperial ambitions in Asia and Latin America.

But of course none of this is mentioned in the piece, in fact it’s quite amazing how he manages to call attention to history while simultaneously ignoring the historical events that are most salient and closest to our times. Because to do so would require dealing with American imperialism which defeats the main purpose of the piece, which is to trumpet America’s greatness and ignore our own looming problems by distracting us with the problems of others; and what say he be the solution to their problems?

“They must create a strong executive presidency elected by popular vote across the euro zone, a truly empowered house of citizens elected according to population and a senate representing the regions. The existing sovereign debts should be federalized through a ‘Union Bond,’ with a strict subsequent debt ceiling for the member state governments. There will have to be a single European military and one language of government and politics: English.”

Translation: Homogeneity and austerity for everyone! Be America-lite.

Now of course, this premise is laughably absurd and is as remote from plausibility as it is obtuse. But distractions are not meant to be full of substance and reality because they would take too long to craft and by this nature dispel their own illusory appeal. One inescapable fact remains for Europe and its colonial immigrants, as it does for America and its slave descendants; the die has already been cast. Both societies have been dealing with the pangs of past misdeeds and each must confront the sins of their fathers, and finally give more than muted mention to the elephant sitting in the corner of the room now wide awake, stirred and staring ominously at our frenetic commotion; waiting for its queue.