People vs. Empire
by Arundhati Roy
In These Times magazine, January
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:' However, as you make your way up India's complex 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.
In the United States, on the other hand,
the blurring of this distinction between sarkar and public has
penetrated far deeper into society. This could be a sign of 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 people in the
United States 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 Qaeda. If it isn't Cuba, it's
Nicaragua. As a result, the most powerful nation in the world
is peopled by a terrified citizenry jumping at shadows. A people
bonded to the state not by social services, or public health care,
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 government from the people. Such
confusion fuels anti-Americanism in the world-anti-Americanism
that is seized upon and amplified by the U.S. government and its
faithful media outlets. You know the routine: "Why do they
hate us? They hate our freedoms:' et cetera. This enhances the
U.S. people's sense of isolation, making the embrace between sarkar
and public even more intimate.
Over the last few years, the "war
on terrorism" has mutated into the more generic "war
on terror:' Using the threat of an external enemy to rally people
behind you is a tired old horse that politicians have ridden into
power for centuries. But could it be that ordinary people, fed
up with that poor old horse, are looking for something different?
Before Washington's illegal invasion of Iraq, a Gallup International
poll showed that in no European country was support for a unilateral
war higher than ii percent. On February 15, 2003, weeks before
the invasion, more than 10 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.
We must question then: 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 terror and the logic that underlies terrorism
are exactly the same. Both make ordinary citizens pay for the
actions of their government. Al Qaeda 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 U.S. government
has made the people of Afghanistan pay in the thousands for the
actions of the Taliban and the people of Iraq pay in the hundreds
of thousands for the actions of Saddam Hussein. Whose God decides
which is a "just war" and which isn't? George Bush senior
once said: "I will never apologize 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 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.
People in scores of countries around 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 of the BJP out of office. But even as we celebrated,
we knew that on nuclear bombs, neoliberalism, privatization, 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.
And what of the US. elections? Did US.
voters have a real choice? The US. political system has been carefully
crafted to ensure that no one who questions the natural goodness
of the military-industrial corporate structure will be allowed
through the portals of power. Given this, it's no surprise that
in this election you had two Yale University graduates, both members
of Skull and Bones, the same secret society, both millionaires,
both playing at soldier-solider, both talking up war, and arguing
almost childishly about who would lead the war on terror more
effectively. 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 Procter & Gamble. 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
of modern democracy is a profound one. Free elections, a free
press and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market
has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest
On the global stage, beyond the jurisdiction
of sovereign governments, international instruments of trade and
finance oversee a complex web 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 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 Organization, 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 under
the fluttering banner of "reform" As a consequence of
such reform, thousands of small enterprises and industries have
closed; millions of workers and farmers have lost their jobs and
Once the free market controls the economies
of the Third World they become enmeshed in an elaborate, carefully
calibrated system of economic inequality. Western countries flood
the markets of poorer nations with their subsidized agricultural
goods and other products with which local producers cannot possibly
compete. Countries that have been plundered by colonizing regimes
are steeped in debt to these same powers, and have to repay them
at the rate of about $382 billion a year. The rich get richer
and the poor get poorer-not accidentally, but by design.
To put a vulgar point on all of this,
the combined wealth of the world's billionaires in 2004 (587 "individuals
and family units"), according to Forbes magazine, is $1.9
trillion-more than the gross domestic product of the world's 135
poorest countries combined. The good news is that there are in
more billionaires this year than there were in 2003.
Modern democracy is safely premised on
almost religious acceptance of the nation state. But corporate
globalization 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 setup ensures that no individual
nation can oppose corporate globalization 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 that can link hands across national borders.
A public that disagrees with the very concept of empire. A public
that has set itself against the governments and institutions that
support and service Empire.
Empire has a range of calling cards. It
uses different weapons to break open different markets. There's
no country on God's earth that isn't caught in the crosshairs
of the US. cruise missile and the IMF checkbook. 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. It is a process
of relentless impoverishment with which the poor are historically
familiar. What Empire does is further entrench and exacerbate
already existing inequalities.
Until quite recently, it was sometimes
difficult for people to see themselves as victims 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. This
is the beginning of real globalization. The globalization of dissent.
Meanwhile, 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. The illegal invasion. The brutal occupation in the
name of liberation. The rewriting of laws to allow the shameless
appropriation of the country's wealth and resources by corporations
allied to the occupation. And now the charade of a sovereign "Iraqi
The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the
frontlines of the battle against Empire. And therefore that battle
is our battle. Before we prescribe how a pristine Iraqi resistance
must conduct a secular, feminist, democratic, nonviolent battle,
we should shore up our end of the resistance by forcing the US.
government and its allies to withdraw from Iraq.
Resistance across borders
The first militant confrontation in the
United States between the global justice movement and the neoliberal
junta took place at the WTO conference in Seattle in December
1999. To many mass movements in developing countries that had
long been fighting lonely, isolated battles, Seattle was the first
delightful sign that people in imperialist countries shared their
anger and their vision of another kind of world. As resistance
movements have begun to reach out across national borders and
pose a real threat, governments have developed their own strategies
for dealing with them, ranging from co-optation to repression.
Three contemporary dangers confront resistance
movements: the difficult meeting point between mass movements
and the mass media, the hazards of the NGOization of resistance,
and the confrontation between resistance movements and increasingly
The place in which the mass media meets
mass movements is a complicated one. Governments have learned
that a crisis-driven media cannot afford to hang about in the
same place for too long. Just as a business needs cash turnover,
the media need crisis turnover. Whole countries become old news,
and cease to exist, and the darkness becomes deeper than before
the light was briefly shone on them.
While governments hone the art of waiting
out crises, resistance movements are increasingly ensnared in
a vortex of crisis production that seeks to find ways of manufacturing
them in easily consumable, spectator-friendly formats. For this
reason, starvation deaths are more effective at publicizing impoverishment
than malnourished people in the millions.
The disturbing thing nowadays is that
resistance as spectacle has cut loose from its origins in genuine
civil disobedience and is becoming more symbolic than real. Colorful
demonstrations and weekend marches are fun and vital, but alone
they are not powerful enough to stop wars. Wars will be stopped
only when soldiers refuse to fight, when workers refuse to load
weapons onto ships and aircraft, when people boycott the economic
outposts of Empire that are strung across the globe.
If we want to reclaim the space for civil
disobedience, we must liberate ourselves from the tyranny of crisis
reportage and its fear of the mundane. We must use our experience,
our imagination and our art to interrogate those instruments of
state that ensure "normality" remains what it is: cruel,
unjust, unacceptable. We must expose the policies and processes
that make ordinary things food, water, shelter and dignity-such
a distant dream for ordinary people. The real preemptive strike
is to understand that wars are the end result of a flawed and
For mass resistance movements, no amount
of media coverage can make up for strength on the ground. There
is no alternative, really, to old-fashioned, back-breaking political
A second hazard facing mass movements
is the NGO-ization of resistance. Some nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) of course do valuable work, but it's important to consider
the NGO phenomenon in a broader political context.
Most large, well-funded NGOs are financed
and patronized by aid and development agencies, which are in turn
funded by Western governments, the World Bank, the United Nations
and some multinational corporations. Though they may not be the
very same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose
political formation that oversees the neoliberal project and demands
the slash in government spending in the first place.
Why should these agencies fund NGOs? Could
it be just old-fashioned missionary zeal? NGOs give the impression
that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state.
And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way. Their real
contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out
as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. They
alter the public psyche, they turn people into dependent victims
and they blunt the edges of political resistance. NGOs form a
sort of buffer between the sarkar and public. Between Empire and
its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters,
the facilitators of the discourse-the secular missionaries of
the modern world.
Eventually-on a smaller scale, but more
insidiously-the capital available to NGOs plays the same role
in alternative politics as the speculative capital that flows
in and out of the economies of poor countries. It begins to dictate
the agenda, turning confrontation into negotiation and depoliticizing
The cost of violence
This brings us to a third danger: the
deadly nature of the actual confrontation between resistance movements
and increasingly repressive states. Between public power and the
agents of Empire.
'Whenever civil resistance has shown the
slightest signs of evolving from symbolic action into anything
remotely threatening, the crackdown is merciless. We've seen what
happened to the demonstrators in Seattle, in Miami, in Gothenburg,
In the United States, you have the USA
PATRIOT Act, which has become a blueprint for antiterrorism laws
passed by governments around the world. Freedoms are being curbed
in the name of protecting freedom. And once we surrender our freedoms,
to win them back will take a revolution.
One does not endorse the violence of militant
groups. Neither morally nor strategically. But to condemn it without
first denouncing the much greater violence perpetrated by the
state would be to deny the people of these regions not just their
basic human rights, but even the right to a fair hearing. People
who have lived in situations of conflict know that militancy and
armed struggle provokes a massive escalation of violence from
the state. But living as they do, in situations of unbearable
injustice, can they remain silent forever?
No discussion taking place in the world
today is more crucial than the debate about strategies of resistance.
And the choice of strategy is not entirely in the hands of the
public. It is also in the hands of sarkar.
In this restive, despairing time, if governments
do not do all they can to honor nonviolent resistance, then by
default they privilege those who turn to violence. No government's
condemnation of terrorism is credible if it cannot show itself
to be open to change by nonviolent dissent. Instead, today, nonviolent
resistance movements are being crushed, bought off or simply ignored.
Meanwhile, governments and the corporate
media (and let's not forget the film industry) lavish their time,
attention, funds, technology and research on war and terrorism.
Violence has been deified. The message this sends is disturbing
and dangerous: If you seek to air a public grievance, violence
is more effective than nonviolence.
The U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq-mostly
volunteers in a poverty draft from small towns and poor urban
neighborhoods-are victims, just as much as the Iraqis, of the
same horrendous process that asks them to die for a victory that
will never be theirs.
The mandarins of the corporate world,
the CEOs, the bankers, the politicians, the judges and generals
look down on us from on high and shake their heads sternly. "There's
no alternative:' they say, and let slip the dogs of war.
Then, from the ruins of Afghanistan, from
the rubble of Iraq and Chechnya, from the streets of occupied
Palestine and the mountains of Kashmir, from the hills and plains
of Colombia, and the forests of Andhra Pradesh and Assam, comes
the chilling reply: "There's no alternative but terrorism:'
Terrorism. Armed struggle. Insurgency. Call it what you want.
Terrorism is vicious, ugly and dehumanizing
for its perpetrators as well as its victims. But so is war. You
could say that terrorism is the privatization of war. Terrorists
are the free marketers of war. They are people who don't believe
that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.
Of course, there is an alternative to
terrorism. Its called justice. It's time to recognize that no
amount of nuclear weapons, or full-spectrum dominance, or "daisy
cutters" or spurious governing councils and loya girgas can
buy peace at the cost of justice.
The urge for hegemony and preponderance
by some will be matched with greater intensity by the longing
for dignity and justice by others. Exactly what form that battle
takes, whether it's beautiful or bloodthirsty, depends on us.
ARUNDHATI ROY is the author of The God
of Small Things, a novel for which she won the Booker Prize in
1997 This article is adapted from Public Power in the Age of Empire
(Seven Stories, 2004) which is based on a speech Roy gave to the
American Sociological Association in August 2004.