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No, thank you

| 19 February 2004

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Arundhati Roy, The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (London: Flamingo, 2004), 160 pages.

 

It is not easy to speak to an empire of violence with an open voice, and gentle, seeing eyes. In a word, in a phrase, this is what Arundhati Roy seems able to achieve. Hers is a voice of disarming decency. It is a voice that has been able, through a behind-the-scenes transformation of which words are but the final mode of appearance, to change outrage into courage, and courage into empathy. Hers is a voice — as anyone who has heard her speak will attest — which reaches through the heart to the true seat of intelligence, the part within us that feels aggrieved by the events we have to witness not merely because they defy an abstract theory of justice, but because they offend that fragile, gentle but enduring, if unnameable, sense shared in moments of solidarity and love about the meaning and home of human dignity.

The courage that Roy turns into empathy is one borne in the resolute defiance of the paranoia and impunity that makes up the common fare of many of the world’s current, supposedly elected, governments. The dignity she defends is that of all peoples everywhere not to be confronted by lies, by manipulations, and not to have to live amid a barrage of petty fascisms. Dignity, to Roy, is not a museum piece of breathless elegance. It is something we must live. It is an urgent possibility. And in general, in the states and societies in which we find ourselves, it is set against the government.

Arundhati Roy is the Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things, a debut novel as eloquent as it is profound. She lives and writes in New Delhi. Since 1997 — when The God of Small Things was first published — Roy has been almost exclusively devoted to political writing, that is, to writing in ways which urgently confront — and often reveal — key issues of social concern. As author of The Cost of Living (1999), Power Politics (2002), The Algebra of Infinite Justice (2002), and War Talk (2003), Roy has become, alongside Noam Chomsky (on whom one of the present book’s essays is written), Robert Fisk, Eduardo Galeano, and the late Edward Said, one of the most revered essayists of our time. Her worth is measured not merely in style (like Galeano, Roy blends an impeccable political consciousness with a beauty of the writing hand that both astonishes and liberates). Beyond being a writer — or perhaps because of being a writer — Roy matches to her political sensibility a precision and fearlessness that all but devastates the would-be hegemonial discourse of multinational media.

In this sense, Roy is a contemporary embodiment of an ancient practice: parrhesia — the art of frank speech. She speaks truth to power. The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire is a collection of essays and speeches published or given between June 2002 and August 2003 and written in this vein. It will not make happy reading for the barons of Corporate America or the clones of Universal Empire. But it may be one of the most useful and educative books you could pick up this year, educative understood, particularly, in the meaning given to the word by Marshall McLuhan — as “civil defense against media fallout”.

It is a short book. It is not weighed down. It is a book clearly written as both an exercise in, and a roadmap towards, political liberation. Many things that are said are familiar: you may have thought as she yourself. At times it is repetitive. The raw and unadorned presentation of its contents (no celebratory preface, no context- providing introduction), gives the book an almost eerie or ghostly feel. One wonders how it will be used: where it will find its mark, and what its impact will be. Repeating, in a sense, Nietzsche’s old foreboding challenge, this is a book that dares its reader to poke her nose into the dark workshop of this world. The scene therein is disturbing. Disgusting, even. Roy’s book vibrates with an intense, unmistakable anger at how things are.

Seven chapters make up The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire. Roy’s subject matter spans from non-violent struggle in India to the run up to and aftermath of the 2003 war on Iraq; from the bankruptcy of “democracy” in a world where everything has a price to the betrayed legacy of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. But the meta-subject is “Empire”, by which Roy understands something both specific and amorphous. Her target is not only American hegemony (though time and again she reveals the hypocrisy and cynicism at the heart of plans for a “new American century”). Empire is more. Empire is the entire process of what is called “globalisation”; it is the entire rise of corporate power; it is the “lunatic asylum” in which we are reared; it is the buying up of countries and people by vested interests that reveals not so much the rise of one nation over others, as the normalisation of iniquity and a mode of division in the protection of privilege. As she says near the beginning of her book, “Though it might appear otherwise, my writing is not really about nations and histories, it’s about power. About the physics of power.” Essentially, Roy’s target is a military-industrial-media class, transnational in reach, of outwardly fascistic tendencies.

The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire is a book of some quite astonishing and moving sections. Her essay on democracy and the “Free Press” — “Instant-mix Imperial Democracy (Buy one, get one free)” — is one of the best you can read on the subject. Democracy, writes Roy, “is the Free World’s whore, willing to dress up, dress down, willing to satisfy a whole range of tastes, available to be used and abused at will”. How else can we explain that 10 million people worldwide protested plans for the destruction of Iraq (the global protests held on 15 February 2003), and yet it went ahead anyway? Meanwhile, her essay written for presentation around the time of the anniversary of the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington — “Come September” — is one of the most remarkable essays of the past three years. Here Roy struggles with the memory of other September 11ths: like the one in 1990 when George Bush Sr declared in Congress his intention to wage war against Iraq; the one in 1973 when the presidential palace of Salvador Allende in Santiago was bombed in a CIA-sponsored coup; or the one in 1922 when the British proclaimed a mandate in Palestine, effectively giving the green light for the future State of Israel to emigrate to someone else’s land. “None of us need anniversaries to remind us of what we cannot forget,” she writes. But in reminding us, and the world, that, “there can never be a single story,” Roy reaches out. “It’s not a clever enough subject to speak of from a public platform, but what I would really love to talk to you about is loss.”

“What does loss mean to individuals? What does it mean to whole cultures, whole peoples, who have learned to live with it as a constant companion?” Roy doesn’t raise the question as an accusation, or a provocation, she insists, only to “thin the mist a little”. To “say to the citizens of America, in the gentlest, most human way: Welcome to the World.”

Systematically, through this book, Roy pulls together connections: the connection between market globalisation and new Imperialism (“Democracy has become Empire’s euphemism for neoliberal capitalism”); between impunity and global security (“the Doctrine of Pre-emptive Strike, aka The United States Can Do Whatever The Hell It Wants, And That’s Official”); between the rise of metaphysics in government rhetoric (“If you’re not Good, you’re Evil”) and the abolition of legitimate dissent, civil liberties and democracy at home. A good chunk of the book is taken up with Iraq; the distasteful, circular logic that had oil and engineering companies pitching in funding to a purchased presidency in order to secure contracts for reconstruction (following a war fought by America’s poor) which are basically funded on the back of cuts in social welfare. This aside from the horrible years of sanctions and forced disarmament that led only to one outcome: invasion.

“Operation Iraqi Freedom? I don’t think so. It’s more like Operation Let’s Run a Race, but First Let Me Break Your Knees.”

The disparity between rich and poor grows as “the connivance of state machinery” — police, courts, even the army — in protecting and furthering corporate interests deepens. The mega- machines of corporate media play their part: “The era of manufacturing consent has given way to the era of manufacturing news. Soon media newsrooms will drop the pretence, and start hiring theatre directors instead of journalists.” In sum, “Apart from paying the actual economic costs of war, American people are playing for these wars of ‘liberation’ with their own freedoms.”

Is Roy alone? Is she the only one who sees this?

Perhaps this book needs to be seen and recognised as part of a growing critique, the formulation of a new language of critique, freed from past knee-jerk allegiances (international communism, nationalism, “freedom” as though it were virgin in all cases), one no longer fooled by the stated aims of states. In 2000 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri published what remains a groundbreaking work, Empire. Here was perhaps the first philosophical and political compendium — a macro- analysis, as it were — of globalisation. It was springing forth from practice, not theory: the practice of the global social justice movement as it emerged in Chiapas, in Seattle, in Prague and in Genoa. Clearly the theme of “Empire” is now a recurring one, gathering strength in a new social formation of opposition. It is telling that this year’s World Social Forum in Mumbai — at which Roy was a keynote speaker — was shadowed by the publication of a book whose very title sums up the present issue according to Roy and a growing collective of intellectual forces at the head of the emergence of a much more vocal, demanding and determined global civil society: Challenging Empires.

In rooting our understanding of “Empire” to the everyday lives of local communities (her opening essay on the Save the Narmada Movement may be the shortest but it is not the least), Roy seeks to energise and liberate a vast constituency of peoples to confront and to “shut down” the march of what clearly to her, though understated, is something akin to the rise of a global fascism. It is not the old fascism of genocidal nationalism as such (though this fascism endures and is linked to the Empire she sees ascending). Rather, it is the fascism of righteousness and concealed structural power — the power of multinationals working in tandem with corporate-Imperial governments, and the challenge to the very possibility of thinking in an age of standardised and impoverished media. In a word, it is the fascism of “the system”, understood correctly, perhaps, as only a voice from the outside could see it. India may be open for business; it may be one of the most rapidly liberalising economies on earth. But for Roy, as was clear to the likes of Galeano in the 1970s when Latin America was in the crosshairs, the gaze of the “Market God” can be nothing but destructive to rights, dreams and lives. It is a system that when necessary believes death, like money, improves people.

If this book must have a downside — and after all, why should it? — it is that all but three of the seven essays have been published in book form already (in War Talk). Moreover, for children of the Internet, all of the present essays are locatable online. But this doesn’t negate the fact that it is a nice book to have in your back pocket. Though Roy is now widely circulated (and soon we’ll all be reading our email from the bathtub), choice of location for reading may in her instance gain importance. Unplug your cable modem. I recommend the outside world: the “aching, broken world”, in her words, that both she and we wake up to every morning.

When Roy draws the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, she means it. The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire is not a book about an imaginary planet. It would be funny, were it not all too real.

This article was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly, 19-24 February 2004, Issue #678: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/678/bo21.htm
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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche