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The story about the African Union HQ in Addis Ababa broke in 2018. Huawei-supplied IT equipment in this new, glitzy Chinese-funded building was regularly — so it was claimed by anonymous sources in Le Monde — siphoning off confidential data to send to Shanghai. Widely reported in the west and India, furiously denied by China, this unresolved scandal suggests issues and questions that are much broader.

Multitudes of books have been written about imperial history. But empire is not just a vital and shape-shifting part of the past; it is also part of the present. So what forms can imperialism and imperial competition take? And what kinds of agencies can serve to advance and implement the business of empire?

These questions drive Philip Stern’s remarkable if relentless new book Empire, Incorporated. Instead of focusing on the roles of monarchs, politicians and armed forces in British empire-making, Stern excavates the central part played by corporations and joint-stock companies. These bodies “above all”, he argues, did the vital business of enabling overseas British colonialism, while simultaneously sucking in widening numbers of Britons at home.

These arguments are not new. But the richness of detail and evidence that Stern, associate professor of history at Duke University, brings to his subject is — as is the lucidity with which he organises his material over six long chapters that stretch from the mid-16th century almost to the present.

As he shows, most of the earliest private overseas enterprises from the British Isles were failures. A 1578 expedition to seek out the Northwest Passage returned with just 1,000 tons of worthless rocks. Overseas venturers also regularly lost their lives — though rarely in such numbers as the indigenous peoples they encountered and increasingly enslaved along their way. Richard Chancellor’s ship was aiming for “Cathay” when it landed instead at Arkhangelsk in 1553; this became the serendipitous origin of England’s Muscovy Company and its regular trade with Russia. The two other ships that set out with Chancellor, however, lost their way. Their crewmen seem to have frozen or starved to death.

Yet high mortality and failure rates rarely put off investors safe at home or people desperate for a new life and location. In the 1820s, hundreds of Gregor MacGregor’s fellow Scots ploughed their savings into his semi-scam of a territory, Poyais, on the coast of Nicaragua, or opted to settle there. Most lost money and/or their lives. None of this halted the enthusiasm shortly after for the (not always) more respectable lures of the Canada Company, the Australian Company and the New Zealand Company.

Overseas traders in what became the UK benefited from having access to advanced print networks. Even failing companies tended to leave behind enticing, often duplicitous maps and boosterish literature; these could persuade potential investors and settlers that next time, like a modern-day national lottery, it could be them.

More important still was the idea of a kind of people’s capitalism. A joint-stock enterprise divided up its stock into portions that could be purchased not just by the company’s partners, but also by outsiders. As an early blurb for the East India Company, founded in 1600, proclaimed, it was “collected and contracted out of all sorts and ranks of men”. And not just men. A minority of women soon began acquiring stocks, either through their own initiative or through the wills of attentive husbands, fathers and brothers.

There were always critics. Some social conservatives were revolted by the medley of folk drawn into these enterprises. These hybrid organisations could alienate in other ways too. Ambitious corporations frequently sought and obtained royal charters. They also regularly demanded the protection of the British Crown’s armed forces. Yet once richly established overseas — and as demonstrated in Massachusetts and other American colonies after 1775 — such chartered enterprises might get above themselves and attempt autonomy. Corporations, warned Thomas Hobbes grimly, were “worms in the entrails” of the body politic, and not simply destabilising, but also corrupting.

Accusations of corruption were most consistently directed against the biggest joint stock company of them all, the East India Company. Given exclusive jurisdiction over English trade in Asia in 1600, by 1760 it was the de facto ruler of Bengal and grasped at much more. For Edmund Burke, the late 18th-century political philosopher, the company was guilty both of oppressing and draining India, and of subverting the proper authority of the British monarch and parliament. Defenders retaliated that the company understood India far better than a distant Westminster. They also summoned up realpolitik. “The love of money”, declared one imperialist in the late 1800s, had always lain “at the root of empire”.

By this point, overseas imperial corporations were in fact in retreat, though not entirely or invariably so. When Bismarck’s newly unified Germany began establishing its own African and Pacific colonies in the late 19th century, it made abundant use of these organisations. And this signals the one real flaw in Stern’s book. Focusing, like so many imperial histories — actually too many — on the British experience, it does not sufficiently address how far versions of these commercial-cum-imperial devices have functioned over time to service other empires. Can we, for instance, view Huawei as a modern variant of Empire, Incorporated — as an ostensibly private corporation that exercises public functions and advances public schemes overseas, and not just in Africa?

What should be the proper contexts for understanding empire is an issue that dominates Why Empires Fall. Written by two senior academics, Peter Heather, a historian of the ancient and medieval world, and John Rapley, a political economist, it is a fascinating, informative and deeply thoughtful work that, in the end, does not quite gel.

As commentators have often done over the centuries, the authors use Ancient Rome as a template for the present. “Over the last three centuries”, they write, “the west rose to dominate the planet”. Now, though, western dominance appears to be under attack and in decline. Faced with this, what can we learn from the Roman empire’s own fall from “dizzying power to disintegration”? True, there are more differences between the modern west and ancient Rome than mere chronology. Nonetheless, they insist, “Rome’s demise” possesses “important lessons for the present”.

But they are surely mixed and complex lessons. Rightly, Heather and Rapley argue that the west’s current challenges are not — as some have claimed — primarily due to waves of immigrants, a present-day equivalent of the “Barbarian” invasions supposed to have been lethal to Roman power.

Correctly, too, they note that the power of global hegemons has in fact often shifted quickly. Even on the eve of Rome’s final deterioration, the economies of many of its regions continued to flourish. By the same token, for all our troubles now, they remind us that as late as 1999 Euro-America may still have been consuming four-fifths of the world’s output of goods and services.

Heather and Rapley also point out that all empires, as well as having to compete with rival superpowers, tend to contribute to the erosion of their own authority by way of the very transformations they unleash in the world. One of their sharpest sections is devoted to the Tata family of Mumbai, first coaxed into transcontinental enterprises by way of British imperial networks and patronage, then alienated by Britain’s limited acceptance of Indian aspirations and nationalism — and now, of course, powerfully established in vital sectors of the UK’s own economy.

In the end, though, the differences between the ancient Roman empire and the kinds of global reach acquired after 1750 by portions of the western world are simply too great for sustained and fruitful historical and political analysis. Such an approach also leaves out too much. Even at its peak, there were huge stretches of the world where Rome’s writ simply did not run.

As for “the west”, the kind of transcontinental hegemony and profits that London enjoyed after 1815, and that Washington and some of its clients experienced after 1945, was once again uneven and substantially the result of victory in seismic wars. Expecting such fortuitous pre-eminence to endure — and viewing its waning as an existential crisis that requires and will reward protracted analysis and worrying — is arguably unrealistic.

Why Empires Fall is emphatically right, however, to focus on the recurring importance of different kinds of empire. Today, the US, China, Russia, India and the EU all exhibit aspects of imperial behaviour, assertion and ideas. One of the acute challenges that all politicians now face — but particularly those of small and medium-sized states — is working out how to understand, cope with and work alongside these serried behemoths, while simultaneously catering to the narrow and traditional nationalisms of many of their peers and citizens. Just consider Brexit.

Empire, Incorporated: The Corporations that Built British Colonialism by Philip J Stern, Belknap Press £30.95/ $35, 408 pages

Why Empires Fall: Rome, America and the Future of the West by John Rapley and Peter Heather, Allen Lane £20, 208 pages

Linda Colley is a professor of history at Princeton University

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