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19 - Ideas of Empire: Civilization, Race, and Global Hierarchy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 August 2019

Warren Breckman
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
Peter E. Gordon
Affiliation:
Harvard University, Massachusetts
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Summary

The nineteenth century saw the rise of global imperial political structures and the advent of industrial capitalism, with its hierarchically structured global economy. European political control expanded from roughly a third of the earth’s territory in 1815 to 85 percent in 1914. An economic “great divergence” between the economies of Europe and Asia, which had been comparable in their most advanced regions in the eighteenth century, opened in part thanks to European conquest of agricultural land in the new world and the forced deindustrialization of colonies such as India. European observers interpreted these changes as evidence of European superiority, and the admiration for non-European civilizations that had been comparatively common among eighteenth-century thinkers all but disappeared. Discourses of civilization and barbarism, progress and backwardness, played a newly central role in conceptions of human society, which varied from universalist theories in which all societies were considered as progressing in similar fashion, if at different paces, along a spectrum from less to more advanced social and political organization, to accounts, often racialized, that held modern civilization to be uniquely available to Europe. Views of empire varied accordingly, from projects of a civilizing imperial mission or of the global spread of European civilization through settler colonies, to defenses of imperial rule on the grounds that non-European societies were not, and might never be, capable of self-rule. Many critics of empire likewise presumed the superiority of European civilization.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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