Navigating Empires

Shahid Bolsen
5 min readAug 16, 2023

Power and control are not straightforward matters anymore. Empires and imperialism exist in different forms today than in the past. Economic empires exist, private sector empires, shareholder empires. Empires of debt. Oligarchical empires. And they overlap and intersect. There are spheres of influence that operate like soft empires. BlackRock and Vanguard represent imperial structures. These new, opaque versions of empires can all occupy the same geographic territories; and in many cases, if not most cases, the actual governments of those territories are comparatively minor or subordinate management structures in their own lands.

The governments are just nodes in larger power networks. It is not the same everywhere, but it is certainly the case in the West. In the Global South, the developing world, and in some Muslim countries, it is less the case; but to a great extent that is only because the global power networks have just not absorbed them yet. They haven’t been integrated into the virtual territory of any of these empires, so national governments are still left alone to exercise some degree of sovereignty. But that’s likely to change very soon with the pivot to the Global South.

BRICS and the redirection of the global economy to the South means the integration of the southern hemisphere into those overlapping, intersecting, private sector empires. This poses an extraordinarily complicated challenge, and it renders everything we have previously thought about liberations movements, independence movements, revolutions, and so on, almost completely obsolete. Even ideas about political Islam, Islamic states, Khilafah, and so forth. All of these notions have become so simplistic in light of modern power dynamics. You have to secure sovereignty in multiple spheres, against the domination of multiple imperial powers.

You can declare independence, or declare an Islamic government, or what have you, tomorrow; but what would that even mean, what sovereignty would you really have? What independence? When you are still embedded within a dense, interlocking set of power networks; when your economy is located within the shared virtual territory of multiple empires.

Look at what those powers did to Syriza in Greece, for instance. Listen to Yannis Veroufakis talking about the IMF and the European Central Bank, and how Greece’s banks were threatened with a total cutoff of credit and liquidity. Or, when Manuel Zelaya was toppled in a coup in Honduras because he wanted to raise the minimum wage, and Chiquita Brands International supported the coup with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, and the IMF opened the tap for massive loans to the country. Or look at Russia right now. And there are endless examples. A node in a network cannot have independence or sovereignty or make autonomous decisions. Independence isn’t something you declare, it is something you have to build up over time, and that is largely an economic, not a political project. You have to build the capacity to extract yourself from the network, and that not only means developing self-sufficiency, but also the ability to resist external coercion.

Russia worked on that, and started to take that very seriously after Crimea, and that is why they are still functioning today. The UAE has been developing this capacity too, for a very long time. This requires incredibly tactful manoeuvring within the imperial power networks you are already in, counter-balancing interests, discreetly and strategically increasing your own power without threatening or conflicting with others. It requires a coldly objective assessment of your position in the networks, your resources, and your impact on everyone else’s interests. No revolution is going to achieve that for you. No jihad. No declaration of independence. No declaration of Khilafah and enactment of Shari’ah. Those are all empty gestures that will not suddenly make you viable and sovereign; and again, there are too many examples to go through to prove that.

The most neglected element in all this, in my opinion, is the people; and the failure of the people to recognize private sector power as the major controlling force in their lives, which needs to be brought to accountability. The whole direction of political activism and organising, in my view, needs to shift from government to the private sector.

Look, in Islam, we have understood from Day One, that leadership, policy-making, governance, and so on, are all determined — no matter what state structure you have — it is all determined by the highest ranks of influential people in the society. The people we call the Ahl al-Hal wal-Aqd; the people who tie and untie, who connect and disconnect, what you would call the movers and shakers. That has always been the case, and always will be the case, in every society, in every system, everywhere.

This is just a reality of human society; some people have more influence than others. Well, today, that is also the case, in the West, in the East, in the Global South and Global North, and in the Muslim world. And those people and the institutions that represent them, need to be brought into the focus of activism, lobbying, campaigning, pressure, to make them accountable and responsive to the public. That is private sector power, and private sector power is itself embedded in networks of workers and consumers and other stakeholders, but when those networks are inactive, complacent, dormant or distracted; that is how private sector power is allowed to operate independently, selfishly, and with sovereignty; because no one is paying attention, and everyone is preoccupied with official power dynamics instead of real existing power dynamics.

In other words, they are busy thinking about the government, and completely overlooking the powers that eclipse governments; even though there are innumerably more ways the people can impact the private sector than they can the government.

They have you focusing on the least important and least meaningful dimension of the power structure. And ironically directing their anger and resentment at governments, while very often celebrating the very oligarchs, billionaires, brand names, and companies that the government is serving against their interests. So, you will admire an Elon Musk or a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet, for example, while hating the politicians who do their bidding, and hate them BECAUSE they do their bidding; but your discontent is never directed at the ones being obeyed.

The relationship between the public and business has to be seriously transformed, and this could, in and of itself, get you much farther towards having a nation with genuine sovereignty and independence