Socialist Worker

Public power in the Age of Empire

Arundhati Roy talks about the gap between governments and the people they are supposed to represent. This is the first instalment of a lecture Socialist Worker is serialising during the ESF

Issue No. 1923a

I’ve been asked to speak about “Public power in the Age of Empire.” I’m not used to doing as I’m told, but by happy coincidence it’s exactly what I’d like to speak about tonight. When language has been butchered and bled of meaning, how do we understand “public power”?

When freedom means occupation, when democracy means neo-liberal capitalism, when reform means repression, when words like “empowerment” and “peacekeeping” make your blood run cold—why, then, “public power” could mean whatever you want it to mean. A biceps building machine, or a Community Power Shower. So I’ll just have to define “public power” as I go along, in my own self serving sort of way.

In India, the word public is now a Hindi word. It means people. In Hindi we have “sarkar” and public, the government and the people. Inherent in this use is the underlying assumption that the government is quite separate from “the people.”

This distinction has to do with the fact that India’s freedom struggle, though magnificent, was by no means revolutionary. The Indian elite stepped easily and elegantly into the shoes of the British imperialists. A deeply impoverished, essentially feudal society became a modern, independent nation-state.

Even today, 57 years on to the day, the truly vanquished still look upon the government as “mai-baap”, the parent and provider. The somewhat more radical, those who still have fire in their bellies, see it as “chor”, the thief, the snatcher-away of all things. Either way, for most Indians, sarkar is very separate from public. However, as you make your way up India’s social ladder, the distinction between sarkar and public gets blurred.

The Indian elite, like the elite anywhere in the world, finds it hard to separate itself from the state. It sees like the state, it thinks like the state, it speaks like the state.

In the United States, on the other hand, the blurring of the distinction between sarkar and public has penetrated far deeper into society. This could be a sign of a robust democracy, but unfortunately it’s a little more complicated and less pretty than that.

Among other things, it has to do with the elaborate web of paranoia generated by the US sarkar and spun out by the corporate media and Hollywood.

Ordinary Americans have been manipulated into imagining they are a people under siege whose sole refuge and protector is their government. If it isn’t the Communists, it’s Al Qaida. If it isn’t Cuba, it’s Nicaragua.

As a result, this, the most powerful nation in the world—with its unmatchable arsenal of weapons, its history of having waged and sponsored endless wars, and the only nation in history to have actually used nuclear bombs—is peopled by a terrified citizenry, jumping at shadows. A people bonded to the state not by social services, or public healthcare, or employment guarantees, but by fear.

This synthetically manufactured fear is used to gain public sanction for further acts of aggression. And so it goes, building into a spiral of self fulfilling hysteria, now formally calibrated by the US government’s Amazing Technicolored Terror Alerts—fuchsia, turquoise, salmon pink.

To outside observers, this merging of sarkar and public in the United States sometimes makes it hard to separate the actions of the US government from the American people. It is this confusion that fuels anti-Americanism in the world.

Anti-Americanism is then seized upon and amplified by the US government and its faithful media outlets. You know the routine: “Why do they hate us? They hate our freedoms”, etc, etc. This enhances the sense of isolation among American people, and makes the embrace between sarkar and public even more intimate. Like Red Riding Hood looking for a cuddle in the wolf’s bed.

Using the threat of an external enemy to rally people behind you is a tired old horse, which politicians have ridden into power for centuries. But could it be that ordinary people are fed up of that poor old horse and are looking for something different? There’s an old Hindi film song that goes “Yeh public hai, yeh sab jaanti hai” (“The public, she knows it all”). Wouldn’t it be lovely if the song were right and the politicians wrong?

Before Washington’s illegal invasion of Iraq, a Gallup International poll showed that in no European country was the support for a unilateral war higher than 11 percent. On 15 February 2003, weeks before the invasion, more than ten million people marched against the war on different continents, including North America. And yet the governments of many supposedly democratic countries still went to war.

The question is, is “democracy” still democratic? Are democratic governments accountable to the people who elected them? And, critically, is the public in democratic countries responsible for the actions of its sarkar?

If you think about it, the logic that underlies the war on terrorism and the logic that underlies terrorism is exactly the same. Both make ordinary citizens pay for the actions of their government.

Al Qaida made the people of the United States pay with their lives for the actions of their government in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The US government has made the people of Afghanistan pay in their thousands for the actions of the Taliban, and the people of Iraq pay in their hundreds of thousands for the actions of Saddam Hussein.

The crucial difference is that nobody really elected Al Qaida, the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. But the president of the United States was elected (well…in a manner of speaking).

The prime ministers of Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom were elected. Could it then be argued that citizens of these countries are more responsible for the actions of their government than Iraqis are for the actions of Saddam Hussein or Afghans for the Taliban?

Whose god decides which is a “just war” and which isn’t? George Bush Sr once said, “I will never apologise for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are.” When the president of the most powerful country in the world doesn’t need to care what the facts are, then we can at least be sure we have entered the Age of Empire.

So what does public power mean in the Age of Empire? Does it mean anything at all? Does it actually exist?

In these allegedly democratic times, conventional political thought holds that public power is exercised through the ballot. Scores of countries in the world will go to the polls this year. Most (not all) of them will get the governments they vote for. But will they get the governments they want?

In India this year we voted the Hindu nationalists out of office. But even as we celebrated, we knew that on nuclear bombs, neo-liberalism, privatisation, censorship, big dams—on every major issue other than overt Hindu nationalism—the Congress and the BJP have no major ideological differences.

We know that it is the 50-year legacy of the Congress Party that prepared the ground culturally and politically for the far right. It was also the Congress Party that first opened India’s markets to corporate globalisation.

In its election campaign the Congress Party indicated that it was prepared to rethink some of its earlier economic policies. Millions of India’s poorest people came out in strength to vote in the elections. The spectacle of the great Indian democracy was telecast live—the poor farmers, the old and infirm, the veiled women with their beautiful silver jewellery, making quaint journeys to election booths on elephants and camels and bullock carts.

Contrary to the predictions of all India’s experts and pollsters, Congress won more votes than any other party. India’s Communist parties won the largest share of the vote in their history. India’s poor had clearly voted against neo-liberalism’s economic “reforms” and growing fascism.

As soon as the votes were counted, the corporate media dispatched them like badly paid extras on a film set. Television channels featured split screens. Half the screen showed the chaos outside the home of Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party, as the coalition government was cobbled together. The other half showed frenzied stockbrokers outside the Bombay stock exchange, panicking at the thought that the Congress Party might actually honour its promises and implement its electoral mandate.

We saw the Sensex stock index move up and down and sideways. The media, whose own publicly listed stocks were plummeting, reported the stockmarket crash as though Pakistan had launched inter-continental ballistic missiles on New Delhi.

Even before the new government was formally sworn in, senior Congress politicians made public statements reassuring investors and the media that privatisation of public utilities would continue. Meanwhile the BJP, now in opposition, has cynically, and comically, begun to oppose foreign direct investment and the further opening of Indian markets. This is the spurious, evolving dialectic of electoral democracy.

As for the Indian poor, once they’ve provided the votes they are expected to bugger off home. Policy will be decided despite them.

And what of the US elections? Do US voters have a real choice?

It’s true that if John Kerry becomes president, some of the oil tycoons and Christian fundamentalists in the White House will change. Few will be sorry to see the back of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or John Ashcroft and their blatant thuggery. But the real concern is that in the new administration their policies will continue—that we will have Bushism without Bush. Those positions of real power—the bankers, the CEOs—are not vulnerable to the vote (…and in any case, they fund both sides).

Unfortunately the importance of the US elections has deteriorated into a sort of personality contest. A squabble over who would do a better job of overseeing Empire. John Kerry believes in the idea of Empire as fervently as George Bush does. The US political system has been carefully crafted to ensure that no one who questions the natural goodness of the military/industrial/corporate power structure will be allowed through the portals of power.

Given this, it’s no surprise that in this election you have two Yale University graduates, both members of Skull and Bones, the same secret society, both millionaires, both playing at soldier-soldier, both talking up war, and arguing almost childishly about who will lead the war on terror more effectively.

Like President Clinton before him, Kerry will continue the expansion of US economic and military penetration into the world. He says he would have voted to authorise Bush to go to war in Iraq even if he had known that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. He promises to commit more troops to Iraq. He said recently that he supports Bush’s policies toward Israel and Ariel Sharon 100 percent. He says he’ll retain 98 percent of Bush’s tax cuts.

So underneath the shrill exchange of insults there is almost absolute consensus. It looks as though even if Americans vote for Kerry they’ll still get Bush. President John Kerbush or President George Berry. It’s not a real choice. It’s an apparent choice. Like choosing a brand of detergent. Whether you buy Ivory Snow or Tide, they’re both owned by Proctor & Gamble.

This doesn’t mean that one takes a position that is without nuance, that the Congress and the BJP, New Labour and the Tories, the Democrats and Republicans are the same. Of course they’re not. Neither are Tide and Ivory Snow. Tide has oxy-boosting and Ivory Snow is a gentle cleanser.

In India there is a difference between an overtly fascist party (the BJP) and a party that slyly pits one community against another (Congress), and sows the seeds of communalism that are then so ably harvested by the BJP.

There are differences in the IQs and levels of ruthlessness between this year’s US presidential candidates.

The anti-war movement in the United States has done a phenomenal job of exposing the lies and venality that led to the invasion of Iraq, despite the propaganda and intimidation it faced. This was a service not just to people here, but to the whole world.

But now, if the anti-war movement openly campaigns for Kerry, the rest of the world will think that it approves of his policies of “sensitive” imperialism.

Is US imperialism preferable if it is supported by the United Nations and European countries? Is it preferable if the UN asks Indian and Pakistani soldiers to do the killing and dying in Iraq instead of US soldiers? Is the only change that Iraqis can hope for that French, German and Russian companies will share in the spoils of the occupation of their country?

Is this actually better or worse for those of us who live in subject nations? Is it better for the world to have a smarter emperor in power or a stupider one? Is that our only choice?

I’m sorry, I know that these are uncomfortable, even brutal questions, but they must be asked. The fact is that electoral democracy has become a process of cynical manipulation. It offers us a very reduced political space today. To believe that this space constitutes real choice would be naive.

The crisis in modern democracy is a profound one. On the global stage, beyond the jurisdiction of sovereign governments, international instruments of trade and finance oversee a complex system of multilateral laws and agreements that have entrenched a system of appropriation that puts colonialism to shame.

This system allows the unrestricted entry and exit of massive amounts of speculative capital—hot money—into and out of Third World countries, which then effectively dictates their economic policy. Using the threat of capital flight as a lever, international capital insinuates itself deeper and deeper into these economies.

Giant transnational corporations are taking control of their essential infrastructure and natural resources, their minerals, their water, their electricity.

The World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank, virtually write economic policy and parliamentary legislation. With a deadly combination of arrogance and ruthlessness, they take their sledgehammers to fragile, interdependent, historically complex societies, and devastate them.

All this goes under the fluttering banner of “reform”. As a consequence of this reform, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, thousands of small enterprises and industries have closed down, millions of workers and farmers have lost their jobs and land.

The Spectator magazine in London assures us that “we live in the happiest, healthiest and most peaceful era in human history”. Billions wonder, “Who’s ‘we’? Where does he live? What’s his Christian name?”

The thing to understand is that modern democracy is safely premised on an almost religious acceptance of the nation-state. But corporate globalisation is not. Liquid capital is not. So, even though capital needs the coercive powers of the nation-state to put down revolts in the servants’ quarters, this set up ensures that no individual nation can oppose corporate globalisation on its own.

Radical change cannot and will not be negotiated by governments. It can only be enforced by people. By the public. A public who can link hands across national borders.

So when we speak of “Public power in the Age of Empire”, I hope it’s not presumptuous to assume that the only thing that is worth discussing seriously is the power of a dissenting public. A public which disagrees with the very concept of Empire. A public which has set itself against incumbent power—international, national, regional, or provincial governments and institutions that support and service Empire.

What are the avenues of protest available to people who wish to resist Empire? By resist I don’t mean only to express dissent, but to effectively force change.

Empire has a range of calling cards. It uses different weapons to break open different markets.

For poor people in many countries, Empire does not always appear in the form of Cruise missiles and tanks, as it has in Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam.

It appears in their lives in very local avatars—losing their jobs, being sent unpayable electricity bills, having their water supply cut, being evicted from their homes and uprooted from their land. All this is overseen by the repressive machinery of the state—the police, the army, the judiciary. It is a process of relentless impoverishment with which the poor are historically familiar. What Empire does is to further entrench and exacerbate already existing inequalities.

Even until quite recently it was sometimes difficult for people to see themselves as victims of the conquests of Empire. But now local struggles have begun to see their role with increasing clarity.

However grand it might sound, the fact is they are confronting Empire in their own, very different ways. Differently in Iraq, in South Africa, in India, in Argentina, and differently, for that matter, on the streets of Europe and the United States.

Mass resistance movements, individual activists, journalists, artists, and film-makers have come together to strip Empire of its sheen. They have connected the dots, turned cashflow charts and boardroom speeches into real stories about real people and real despair.

They have shown how the neo-liberal project has cost people their homes, their land, their jobs, their liberty, their dignity. They have made the intangible tangible. The once seemingly incorporeal enemy is now corporeal.

This is a huge victory. It was forged by the coming together of disparate political groups with a variety of strategies. But they all recognised that the target of their anger, their activism, and their doggedness is the same. This was the beginning of real globalisation—the globalisation of dissent.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of mass resistance movements in Third World countries today.

The landless peoples’ movement in Brazil, the anti-dam movement in India, the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Anti-Privatisation Forum in South Africa, and hundreds of others, are fighting their own sovereign governments, which have become agents of the neo-liberal project. Most of these are radical struggles, fighting to change the structure and chosen model of “development” of their own societies.

Then there are those fighting formal and brutal neo-colonial occupations in contested territories whose boundaries and faultlines were often arbitrarily drawn last century by the imperialist powers. In Palestine, Tibet, Chechnya, Kashmir, and several states in India’s northeast provinces, people are waging struggles for self determination.

Several of these struggles might have been radical, even revolutionary when they began, but often the brutality of the repression they face pushes them into conservative, even retrogressive spaces in which they use the same violent strategies and the same language of religious and cultural nationalism used by the states they seek to replace.

Many of the footsoldiers in these struggles will find, like those who fought apartheid in South Africa, that once they overcome overt occupation, they will be left with another battle on their hands—a battle against covert economic colonialism.

Meanwhile, as the rift between rich and poor is being driven deeper and the battle to control the world’s resources intensifies, economic colonialism through formal military aggression is staging a comeback.

Iraq today is a tragic illustration of this process. An illegal invasion. A brutal occupation in the name of liberation. The rewriting of laws that allow the shameless appropriation of the country’s wealth and resources by corporations allied to the occupation, and now the charade of a local “Iraqi government.”

For these reasons, it is absurd to condemn the resistance to the US occupation in Iraq as being masterminded by terrorists or insurgents or supporters of Saddam Hussein. After all, if the United States were invaded and occupied, would everybody who fought to liberate it be a terrorist or an insurgent or a Bushite?

The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle.

Like most resistance movements it combines a motley range of assorted factions. Former Ba’athists, liberals, Islamists, fed-up collaborationists, Communists, etc. Of course it is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery and criminality. But if we are only going to support pristine movements then no resistance will be worthy of our purity.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t ever criticise resistance movements. Many of them suffer from a lack of democracy, from the iconisation of their “leaders,” a lack of transparency, a lack of vision and direction. But most of all they suffer from vilification, repression and lack of resources.

Before we prescribe how a pristine Iraqi resistance must conduct their secular, feminist, democratic, non-violent battle, we should shore up our end of the resistance by forcing the US government and its allies to withdraw from Iraq.

© Arundhati Roy 2004.


In tomorrow’s Socialist Worker Arundhati Roy talks about pitfalls for the movement. “Public power in the Age of Empire” was first given as a lecture in San Francisco on 16 August 2004.

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Thu 14 Oct 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1923a
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