College Quarterly
Winter 2008 - Volume 11 Number 1
Reviews The Perils of Empire
James Laxer
Toronto: Penguin, 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Once rejected as a concept that could be reasonably applied to the post-World War II American hegemon, the notion of “empire” has, during the presidency of George W. Bush, become an accepted part of the discourse about the power of the United States in the world. This is largely a result of the neoconservative ascendancy in the US, which took its intellectual justification from Leo Strauss and its economic ideology from Milton Friedman – both of the University of Chicago. Their disciples have come to hold important posts in US government. The pertinent effect has been for American leaders to embrace the hope that the United States, as the sole remaining superpower, would lead the world toward democracy, market society and an enhanced level of civilization.

Ideas about the possibility and the inherent value of a twenty-first century Pax Americana flourished post-9/11. The Project for a New American Century applauded as men such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle articulated the vision of America as a new Rome (or at least a new Great Britain), and hoped for the best as officials such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld sought to put the theory into practice.

The great American experiment in fashioning a new world order has, of course, gone terribly wrong. What remains is to await the post-American world and to inquire into the reasons for the American failure, if only so that the collapse of imperial ideology does not bring about the collapse of the soon to be post-imperial centre.

With this in mind, I had great hopes for a new book by James Laxer, which advertises itself as a commentary on the perils of imperial ambition, and seeks to put the most recent manifestation of the imperial impulse into historical perspective. I have been somewhat disappointed.

James Laxer, a prolific if not always a profound writer, has been a visible figure on the Canadian left for decades. His greatest moment of practical triumph came in 1971, when he was defeated in the race for the leadership of the semi-socialist New Democratic Party. As putative head of the nationalist wing of the party, he lost to long-time party warhorse David Lewis by a margin of 1046 to 612 votes. Few imagined the gap would be so narrow. Fewer imagined that the victory by less than two to one would also signal the end of the youthful, idealistic, nationalistic and slightly more seriously socialistic wing of the NDP. Laxer subsequently found himself at York University, where he has been teaching and writing ever since. His career in the academy has not resulted in any great theoretical advances. In fact, much of his work has been a trifle pedestrian and has been – to put it generously – eclectic. He has offered his views on free trade, the petroleum and natural gas industries, social class and class conflict, leftist political ideas, American culture and globalization. He now addresses the notion of empire from ancient Egypt to contemporary Washington.

The Perils of Empire certainly has its place. If there are any college teachers with the will and the freedom to discuss global issues of political and economic power and, more boldly, to create entire courses around such themes, Laxer’s latest volume will probably be serviceable.

The book begins with a modest disquisition on the origins and apparently inevitable endings of some of the world’s most famous imperial projects. In addition to ancient Egypt, we are treated to brief summaries of the rise and fall of the Athenian, Roman, Chinese, Spanish and British empires. Some attention is paid to the economic bases of each (primarily slavery at the beginning and commercial trade toward the end). Each slim synopsis is competent enough, though often derived from a single secondary source (J. B. Bury’s 1913 volume, A History of Greece in the case of Athens, and Henry Kamen’s Empire: How Spain Became a World Power 1492-1763 in the case of the prime Iberian experiment). No one with even a passing familiarity with any of Laxer’s examples will learn much that is new.

In the concluding section, The Perils of Empire discusses the enduring theme of “imperial overstretch” which already seems apparent in the case of the United States today. Attention is given to the struggle with Islam and the politics of oil. Latin America is considered as a potentially important source of discomfort for imperial presidents as much of that long-ignored part of the hemisphere has turned leftward in its choice of governance. And, of course, the impending difficulties with the newly emergent economic juggernaut centred in Beijing is given its due.

All of this may be useful as a springboard from which critical teachers could initiate useful dialogues with interested students in college classes. So, why am I disappointed? I suppose it is because there are not many Canadians with both a practical knowledge of political life and a base of their own in the academic community who are equipped to present a fresh perspective on empire. I would have liked James Laxer to aim somewhat higher than he has done in this work. In all the flurry of publication about the recent discovery that the American technological empire is (or was) the dominant force on Earth, most of the writers are – what else? – Americans.

True, we can sift through alternative sources from the antique Canadian conservative critic, George Grant, to the contemporary British cheerleader, Niall Ferguson, but most of the talk about “them” is spoken by “them”. It was not always so, as readers of people like André Gunder Frank and even Gunnar Myrdal can attest.

Perhaps it was unrealistic of me to expect more at this time. Perhaps The Perils of Empire will, if aggressively marketed, serve a mid-range pedagogical purpose. Or, perhaps, James Laxer will one day undertake a more serious book, one that will help us to understand better the fate of America and, of course, our own fate as we travel in its wake.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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