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Lusotropicalism as an imperial ideology

Jens Bartelson


Empires are curious beasts. By their very nature, they challenge our conventional compartmentalization of political life into a domestic inside and an international outside. As Doyle has argued:

empires seem to combine aspects of both domestic and international politics . . . with the domestic order, societies in an empire share the characteristic of individuals effectively subject to a single sovereign . . . with the international order, societies in an empire share the characteristic of a less-than-full integration of social interaction and cultural values.

(1986, 35-36)2

Furthermore, empires elide our distinction between a stateless past and a statist present, since they “stand between what may be called the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’ political systems and regimes” (Eisenstadt 1963, 4). From the viewpoint of modern social science, therefore, empires look anomalous, the concept of empire being intrinsically hard to define with reference to its standard concepts and distinctions. Yet this tendency to regard empires as anomalous not only makes it difficult to understand how and why a world of empires was replaced by a world of states, but also makes it easy to forget that some empires continued to exist long after the state had been established as the predominant form of political community in this world.

Like any other form of political community, empires stand in need of legitimization. The more legitimate an empire is perceived to be by those subjected to its rule, the less the risk for inner strife. And the more legitimate an empire is perceived to be by other actors in the international system, the better it can withstand external challenges (Lieven 1999). To these ends, most empires rely on ideologies that provide imperial rule with particularistic justifications that claim to be universal in scope. As Hans Morgenthau once noted, “[a] policy of imperialism is always in need of an ideology; for, in contrast to a policy of the status quo, imperialism always has the burden of proof” (1985, 106). To this I would like to add that the same goes for imperial policies that seek to preserve the status quo in a world in which empires no longer are the dominant actors.

In this chapter, therefore, I shall focus on the role of ideology in legitimizing empires and imperial rule. As I shall argue, understanding the role of ideology is essential not only to understand how empires and imperial rule have been maintained, but also in order to account for the curious fact that empires sometimes seem to outlast themselves. Some empires have endured much longer than could be predicted from their material power base, and other have continued to influence the thought and actions of men long after they have ceased to exist.3

Doing this, I shall focus on the efforts to legitimize Portuguese imperial rule during 1950-1975. There are three reasons for this seemingly idiosyncratic focus. First, Portuguese imperial ideology has received less systematic attention than its British, Spanish and French counterparts.4 Second, since the Portuguese were among the first to establish an empire of transcontinental scope, they were challenged to legitimize imperial rule in a context of cultural and geographical diversity (Russell-Wood 1998; Bethencourt and Ramada Curto 2005; Paquette 2013). Third, it remains enigmatic how and why Portugal was able to sustain its imperial ambitions long into the twentieth century in political circumstances that must be characterized as very adverse. As Portugal had been weakened by its aspirations to autarky, little was to be gained from holding on to its African colonies, and the price paid for doing so increased as decolonization progressed elsewhere (Clarence-Smith 1985). Nevertheless, the Salazar and Caetano governments clung to their vision of a transcontinental state until the demise of the dictatorship in 1974, which then was followed by a swift and traumatic devolution of the Portuguese empire (MacQueen 1997).

In the following, I will suggest that a closer look at the ideological foundations of Portuguese postwar imperialism can provide important clues to the unlikely endurance of Portuguese imperial rule. Although Portuguese imperial ideology has already received a fair amount of scholarly attention, existing accounts have mainly focused on specific aspects such as geography and race, rather than on its wider implications for the study of imperial ideologies in international political theory.5 By contrast, I shall argue that Portuguese postwar imperial ideology should be situated in the context of imperial ideologies more generally, and seen as a paradigmatic case of those dilemmas that have affected most modern attempts to legitimize claims to unbounded political authority Doing this, I shall assume that the main function of ideology is to remove certain things from contestation, thereby having them taken for granted by the relevant audiences (Freeden 2006). By implication, the most basic function of imperial ideologies is to make the state of affairs most conducive to effective imperial rule appear as a natural condition to those on the receiving end of that rule, while describing deviations from this condition as a result of dysfunctions that must be corrected by means of further expansion of the scope of imperial rule. In the international context, the main function of an imperial ideology is to make claims to empire appear legitimate with reference to the legal norms and moral standards prevailing in international society in order to preserve the international standing of the empire in question.

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