Empires are some of the most visible forms of organized power, through which we can see very clearly how and why power emerges, expands and eventually disintegrates. Such power tends to emerge as people fail to take charge of their own affairs after the collapse of a previous empire, leaving a vacuum to be filled. But this power is always unequal, and produces resistance. To maintain itself this resistance, like all threats to power, must be crushed. This is why organized imperial power must constantly expand in order to secure its fragile existence. Empires therefore always end of overstretching themselves, and in doing so hasten their own disintegration.
Now, we are watching this process take place before our eyes. Until last week, Rupert Murdoch's global media empire, which acted as a king-maker in Britain, had seemed invincible. The British government in fact went out of its way to enable Murdoch to take total control of BSkyB, which would give him control of 40% of Britain's commercial media - by far the largest media empire in British history, and a nail in the coffin of cultural democracy in Britain.
There has been simmering discontent about Murdoch's power within British society for many years. However, it took a conjuncture of several factors in order to start the snowballing process that may eventually crush an empire which was built at the feet of an increasingly angry society. The News of the World phone-hacking scandal, in which the phones of all newsworthy people from prime ministers to victims of crime and terrorism were hacked, became a rallying point that focussed this public grievance. Now, the politicians who until a week ago ran to Murdoch with a nod of his head could not move far enough away. They can see that the emperor has no clothes. Murdoch returned to Britain in the eye of a storm in order to rescue his favourite collaborator Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International. He did not know that in a short time his magical influence would evaporate to such an extent that he has had to forget about Rebecca and fight for his own survival. Shares in his empire have plummeted. One group of share holders is threatening to sue him for incompetence. News has emerged that his papers hired criminals with violent records in order to do dirty jobs. In the US, there is movement to investigate whether he should be brought to justice and now the FBI is investigating whether his papers have also hacked into the phone of family victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Murdoch's arrogance has made him incapable of adjusting himself to this the fast moving process and his interview with Wall Street Journal only verifies that. Maybe he even does not yet know that he is here not to save Brooks, but himself. As we have seen in the recent fall of despots in the Arab worlds, despotic characters are the last to see that their end is coming.
How did this happen? Surely not without public pressure, which was produced and transferred into the corridors of power with the help of a few remaining independent papers, such as the Guardian and Independent. Even more important were social media like Facebook and Twitter, which carried out campaigns of speaking truth to power while most of the media were censoring themselves. As this pressure eventually opened a floodgate of dissent, it became obvious that Murdoch's empire could never have been built without the participation and consent of the British state, especially the government and police. The exposure of this information has had a cumulative effect and increased both public interest in and anger about the issue. Those politicians who have been cooperating, in awe of the empire, or grudgingly silent, have had to act. When they received public support or were faced with increasing public pressure, they not only realized that they were swimming over a wave of public anger, but that their actions had demystified Murdoch's imperial power. As more people spoke out without fear against corruption and deceit, the more the politicians had to act, and the process of imperial disintegration was accelerated.
When empires collapse, people begin to ask - why did we not act before? They ask because they realize that the power of the empire was mostly a result of their consent; that the reality of its power was mainly in their imagination.
It is relatively safe to assume that Murdoch's empire will very soon be history. But the question is, what might replace the vacuum that will emerge in its wake? The histories of imperial collapse offer some insight. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, second-rate imperial elites turned out as new leaders in the newly independent countries. It happened because people failed to take effective action and work to shape their own destinies; and power could thus reproduce itself. If we do not want to see the collapse of Murdoch's empire simply provide space for the emergence of another, people have to take action to fill the gaps. One of the first steps they should take is to make it illegal for a single person or group to own more than one media. There is an opportunity now to challenge other media empires, whose only task is to manipulate perceptions of the world and detach people from their own realities. If action is not taken, then we should not be surprised to see new projects of empire building - and ones, learning from this experience, which may have far greater abilities to deceive and manipulate.