As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Beau Mullen looks at Alain de Benoist’s “The Idea of Empire,” from Telos 98–99 (Winter 1993/Spring 1994).
Few political concepts have appeared as destined to be cast into history’s dustbin as that of empire. The nation-state is the most widely accepted model for sovereign territories, and imperial ambitions of nations are often condemned by the international community. The existence of great empires, such as that of the Romans or of the Holy Roman Empire, it appears, are simply regimes that are relics of a distant, less enlightened historical era. The areas once encompassing the great empires have now fractured into sovereign nation-states, each with its own polity and allegiances. Furthermore, serious modern confederation between nations is most often based on monetary concerns, not the furtherance of any imperial goal or ambition. The sun, it could be said, has set on the idea of empire.
Alain de Benoist disagrees. In his 1993 Telos article “The Idea of Empire,” Benoist argues that the idea of empire is not only relevant but also its revival is necessary to solve the problems caused by the fractioning of the West into nation-states. Benoist views the idea of empire with none of the negative connotations that are commonly attached to the term today. He does not view empire as merely the construct of power-hungry imperial powers but, rather, as a legitimate and necessary form of governance that may not be identified in our current geopolitical situation, but is nonetheless a relevant alternative to the nation-state. He writes:
What distinguishes the empire from the nation? First of all, the fact that the empire is not primarily a territory but essentially an idea or a principle. The political order is determined by it—not by material factors or by possession of a geographical area. It is determined by a spiritual or juridical idea. In this respect, it would be a serious mistake to think that the empire differs from the nation in terms of size in that it is somehow “a bigger nation than others.” Of course, the empire covers a wide area. What is important, however, is that the emperor holds power by virtue of embodying something that goes beyond simple possession. As a dominus mundi, he is suzerain of princes and kings, i.e., he rules over soveriegns, not territories, and represents a power transcending the community he governs. (84)
The unifying principle of an empire, he contends, is not a singular faith or nationality; it is unified by concordance to specific ideas or principles. A true empire unifies the inhabitants while allowing them to keep their respective nationalities, customs, and faiths (88). This observation sheds light on Benoist’s views on the importance of multiculturalism; while his views against immigration are well known, it should be noted that he sees multiculturalism dissolving into cultural homogeneity as the result of unrestricted immigration. To put it simply, Benoist sees what is often referred to as the “cultural melting pot” as a process that in fact debases culture. Benoist’s stance against immigration is taken to preserve multiculturalism, not guard against it. Since an empire has no designs to produce a mass cultural identity, it is in fact the nation-state that represents the greatest threat to multiculturalism. Benoist writes: “Conversely, what characterizes the national realm is its irresistible tendency to centralization and homogenization. The nation-state’s investment of space is first revealed in a territory on which a homogeneous political sovereignty is exercised” (89). It appears that Benoist would prefer separate cultural groups to reign independently under the umbrella of an empire than to be squashed into conformity or repressed in the nation-state.
The individual has a different place in empire than it does in the modern nation. The secular nation-state governs individuals. Citizens of the nation-state are likely to think of themselves primarily as individuals rather than as members of their nation, clan, or ethnic group. Benoist sees this as one of the nation-state’s fundamental flaws—one that empire does not share with it. He writes, “This individualism, woven within the logic of the nation, is obviously opposed to the holism of imperial construction, where the individual is not dissociated from his natural connections” (91). A Gaul, for instance, was never cut off from his identity as a Gaul, even though he was a citizen of an empire. Conversely, the individual citizen of a nation-state is primarily just that.
The type of empire espoused by Benoist has not been seen by Western civilization for some time. While we currently have great powers whose territory and influence are certainly far- reaching, Benoist states that these are not truly empires. He writes:
The word empire should be reserved only for the historical constructions deserving that name, such as the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Germanic Roman Empire, or the Ottoman Empire. The Napoleonic empire, Hitler’s Third Reich, the French and British colonial empires, and modern imperialisms of the American and Soviet types are certainly not empires. Such a designation is only abusively given to enterprises or powers merely engaged in expanding their national territory. These modern “great powers” are not empires but rather nations which simply want to expand, by military, political, economic or other conquest beyond their current frontiers. (93)
Benoist points to something similar to what Schmitt sees as the sacred origin of the state as what gives empire it power and legitimacy: an element of the spiritual. This sacred element is notably lacking in the modern quasi-empires that he lists; the goals of their leaders are simply to obtain more territory and power. In contrast, Benoist points to the emperors of the Germanic Roman Empire, who saw themselves as carrying out the mission of a sacred institution. By making itself a tool of divine justice, the medieval empire is granted legitimacy, whereas the modern colonial and imperial regimes are motivated by individual self interest and can be viewed as vulgar when compared to their sacred, medieval counterparts.
This 1993 article is also of interest because it highlights the influence of Julius Evola on Benoist’s thoughts concerning empire. Benoist makes clear that when referring to empire, he is using Evola’s conception of the phrase, which was a supra-national and quasi-mystical form of authority (84). Evola also saw empire as a unifying force rather than hegemonic behemoth. Benoist sees Evola’s form of empire as currently absent but highly preferential to both the nation-state and colonial imperialism.
Because “The Idea of Empire” incorporates Benoist’s thoughts on geopolitics and sovereignty, as well as some of his thoughts on the spiritual or mystic dimensions of these concerns, this essay serves as an excellent primer for those interested in Benoist’s philosophy. It demonstrates his concerns about multiculturalism and cultural homogeneity as well as his rejection of secularism and the nation-state. In so doing, Benoist reveals himself to be a highly original and radical philosopher.
Read the full version of Alain de Benoist’s “The Idea of Empire” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.