Publishers Weekly Review

The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall Timothy H. Parsons. Oxford Univ., $29.95 (528p) ISBN 978-0-19-530431-2

22 February 2010

Unhappy empires are, in crucial respects, all the same--and happy ones don't exist, according to this incisive study. Historian Parson (The British Imperial Century, 1815--1914) surveys imperial regimes from Rome's rule in ancient Britain to Spain's in Peru, Britain's in India and Kenya, and Nazi Germany's occupation of France. He identifies a single mercenary purpose behind these diverse examples: to loot the wealth and exploit the labor of conquered peoples. At the same time, he argues, stable rule requires the cooperation and assimilation of imperial subjects, which sets up a fatal contradiction--as an empire co-opts its subjects, it becomes harder to profitably exploit them, and the financial underpinnings of empire crumble. Challenging neo-imperialists like Niall Ferguson, the author insists that there is no such thing as benign empire; he fingers Britain's allegedly “liberal” empire as one of the most dysfunctional, because of its racist refusal to assimilate its populace. Parsons draws together an enormous amount of scholarship into a lucid, cold-eyed analysis of the mechanics of imperial control. The result is a compelling critique of empires past and of their latter-day nostalgists. (June)

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Timothy H. Parsons - Professor of African History - Washington University in St. Louis