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Author and activist Arundhati Roy spoke to a huge audience at the World Social Forum in Brazil recently. Her subject was 'How to confront Empire'

Issue No. 1838

WE NEED to identify what 'Empire' means. Does it mean the US government (and its European satellites), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and multinational corporations? Or is it something more than that? In many countries Empire has sprouted other subsidiary heads, some dangerous by-products-nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism and, of course, terrorism.

All these march arm in arm with the project of corporate globalisation. Let me illustrate what I mean. India is currently at the forefront of the corporate globalisation project. Its 'market' of one billion people is being prised open by the WTO.

The government and the Indian elite welcome corporatisation and privatisation. The dismantling of democracy is proceeding with the speed and efficiency of an IMF structural adjustment programme. While the project of corporate globalisation rips through people's lives in India, massive privatisation and labour 'reforms' are pushing people off their land and out of their jobs.

Hundreds of impoverished farmers are committing suicide by consuming pesticide. Reports of starvation deaths are coming in from all over the country. While the elite journeys to its imaginary destination somewhere near the top of the world, the dispossessed are spiralling downwards into crime and chaos. This climate of frustration and national disillusionment is the breeding ground, history tells us, for fascism.

The two arms of the Indian government have evolved the perfect pincer action. While one arm is busy selling India off in chunks, the other, to divert attention, is orchestrating a howling, baying chorus of Hindu nationalism and religious fascism. It is conducting nuclear tests, rewriting history books, burning churches, and demolishing mosques.

Last March, in the state of Gujarat, 2,000 Muslims were butchered in a state-sponsored pogrom. Muslim women were specially targeted. They were stripped and gang-raped before being burned alive. Arsonists burned and looted shops, homes, textiles mills and mosques. More than 150,000 Muslims have been driven from their homes. The economic base of the Muslim community has been devastated. While Gujarat burned, the Indian prime minister was on MTV promoting his new poems.

In January this year the government that orchestrated the killing was voted back into office with a comfortable majority. Nobody has been punished for the genocide.

If this were Saddam Hussein each atrocity would have been on CNN. But since it's not - and since the Indian 'market' is open to global investors - the massacre is not even an embarrassing inconvenience. All this shatters a myth that the free market breaks down national barriers. The free market does not threaten national sovereignty - it undermines democracy. As the disparity between the rich and the poor grows, the fight to corner resources is intensifying.

To push through its 'sweetheart deals', to corporatise the crops we grow, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the dreams we dream, corporate globalisation needs allies. It needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, authoritarian governments in poorer countries to push through unpopular reforms and quell the mutinies.

Corporate globalisation (or shall we call it by its name? - imperialism) needs a press that pretends to be free. It needs courts that pretend to dispense justice. Meanwhile, the countries of the North harden their borders and stockpile weapons of mass destruction.

After all, they have to make sure that it's only money, goods, patents and services that are globalised. Not the free movement of people. Not a respect for human rights. Not international treaties on racial discrimination or chemical and nuclear weapons or greenhouse gas emissions or climate change or, god forbid, justice. So this - all this - is 'Empire'. This loyal confederation, this obscene accumulation of power, this greatly increased distance between those who make the decisions and those who have to suffer them.

Our fight, our goal, our vision of another world must be to eliminate that distance. So how do we resist 'Empire'? The good news is that we're not doing too badly. There have been major victories.

Here in Latin America you have had so many. In Bolivia, you have Cochabamba. In Peru, there was the uprising in Arequipa. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is holding on, despite the US government's best efforts. And the world's gaze is on the people of Argentina, who are trying to refashion a country from the ashes of the havoc wrought by the IMF.

In India the movement against corporate globalisation is gathering momentum and is poised to become the only real political force to counter religious fascism. As for corporate globalisation's glittering ambassadors-Enron, Bechtel, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen-where were they last year, and where are they now? And of course here in Brazil we must ask...who was the president last year, and who is it now? Still, many of us have dark moments of hopelessness and despair. We know that under the spreading canopy of the 'war against terrorism', the men in suits are hard at work.

While bombs rain down on us, and cruise missiles skid across the skies, we know that contracts are being signed, patents are being registered, oil pipelines are being laid, natural resources are being plundered, water is being privatised. And George Bush is planning war against Iraq.

If we look at this conflict as a straightforward eyeball to eyeball confrontation between 'Empire' and those of us who are resisting it, it might seem that we are losing. But there is another way of looking at it. We, all of us gathered here, have, each in our own way, laid siege to 'Empire'.

We may not have stopped it in its tracks yet - but we have stripped it down. We have made it drop its mask. We have forced it into the open. It now stands before us on the world's stage in all its brutish, iniquitous nakedness. Empire may well go to war, but it's out in the open now-too ugly to behold its own reflection. Too ugly even to rally its own people. It won't be long before the majority of American people become our allies.

Recently in Washington a quarter of a million people marched against the war on Iraq. Each month the protest is gathering momentum. Before 11 September 2001 America had a secret history - secret especially from its own people.

But now America's secrets are history, and its history is public knowledge. It's street talk. Today we know that every argument that is being used to escalate the war against Iraq is a lie - the most ludicrous of them being the US government's deep commitment to bring democracy to Iraq.

Killing people to save them from dictatorship or ideological corruption is, of course, an old US government sport. Here in Latin America you know that better than most.

Nobody doubts that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless dictator, a murderer (whose worst excesses were supported by the governments of the United States and Great Britain). There's no doubt that Iraqis would be better off without him. But, then, the whole world would be better off without a certain Mr Bush. In fact, he is far more dangerous than Saddam Hussein.

So, should we bomb Bush out of the White House? It's more than clear that Bush is determined to go to war against Iraq, regardless of the facts - and regardless of international public opinion.

In its recruitment drive for allies, the US is prepared to invent facts. The charade with weapons inspectors is the US government's offensive, insulting concession to some twisted form of international etiquette. It's like leaving the door open for last minute 'allies' or maybe the United Nations to crawl through.

But to all intents and purposes, the new war against Iraq has begun. What can we do? We can hone our memory. We can learn from our history. We can continue to build public opinion until it becomes a deafening roar.

We can turn the war on Iraq into a fishbowl of the US government's excesses. We can expose George Bush and Tony Blair - and their allies - for the cowardly baby killers, water poisoners, and pusillanimous long-distance bombers that they are. We can reinvent civil disobedience in a million different ways. In other words, we can come up with a million ways of becoming a collective pain in the ass. When George Bush says, 'You're either with us or you are with the terrorists,' we can say, 'No thank you.'

We can let him know that the people of the world do not need to choose between a Malevolent Mickey Mouse and the Mad Mullahs. Our strategy should be not only to confront Empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness - and our ability to tell our own stories.

Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling - their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.


ROSA LUXEMBURG was a revolutionary socialist in Germany and outspoken opponent of the First World War. She was jailed in 1914 for her agitation against the war and in prison wrote the Junius Pamphlet. It ended, 'The war is not only a grandiose murder, but the suicide of the European working class.

'This madness will not stop, and this bloody nightmare of hell will not cease until the workers of Germany, of France, of Russia and of England will wake up out of their drunken sleep, will clasp each other's hands in brotherhood and will drown the bestial chorus of war agitators and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the mighty cry of labour: 'Workers of all countries, unite'.'

MARTIN LUTHER KING fought for black civil rights in the US and opposed the government over the Vietnam War. He was later assassinated.

'War was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.

So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village. But we then realise that they would never live on the same block in Detroit or East Harlem. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.'

JOHN MACLEAN was a British revolutionary socialist who stood out against the war in 1914. He was imprisoned repeatedly for his anti-war agitation and his death was hastened by the harsh treatment he received in jail. He described the war as

'plunderers versus plunderers with the workers as pawns. It is our business as socialists to develop class patriotism, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism'. In May 1918 he said while on trial.

'I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has witnessed. I am not here as the accused-I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.'

VIC WILLIAMS was a British soldier who was jailed for 14 months for refusing to fight in the 1991 Gulf War. 'I just knew I couldn't be part of it, whatever the consequences. I feel totally justified because what happened during the war was even worse than I had imagined would happen. When I went to prison I had a clear conscience and when I got out I had a clear conscience. I'd rather that than have the memory of the agony and the bodies.'


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