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PEOPLE VS.

EM
Only global resistance from below can counter repressive st
capital and compromised NGOs. By Arundhati Roy

A protester confronts
Seattle police after
they fired tear gas to
DAN LE V INE / AFP

disperse demonstrators
in downtown Seattle on
November 30, 1999.

16 JANUARY 3, 2005 IN THESE TIMES

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I
MPIRE
N INDIA, THE WORD PUBLIC IS NOW A vasion of Iraq, a Gallup International poll
Hindi word. It means people. In Hindi, showed that in no European country was
we have sarkar and public, the govern- support for a unilateral war higher than 
ment and the people. Inherent in this percent. On February 5, 2003, weeks before
use is the underlying assumption that the the invasion, more than 0 million people
government is quite separate from “the marched against the war on different con-
people.” However, as you make your way up tinents, including North America. And yet
India’s complex social ladder, the distinc- the governments of many supposedly dem-
tion between sarkar and public gets blurred. ocratic countries still went to war.
The Indian elite, like the elite anywhere in We must question then: Is “democracy”
states, transnational the world, finds it hard to separate itself
from the state.
still democratic? Are democratic govern-
ments accountable to the people who
In the United States, on the other hand, elected them? And, critically, is the public
the blurring of this distinction between in democratic countries responsible for the
sarkar and public has penetrated far deeper actions of its sarkar?
into society. This could be a sign of robust If you think about it, the logic that under-
democracy, but unfortunately it’s a little lies the war on terror and the logic that un-
more complicated and less pretty than that. derlies terrorism are exactly the same. Both
Among other things, it has to do with the make ordinary citizens pay for the actions of
elaborate web of paranoia generated by the their government. Al Qaeda made the people
U.S. sarkar and spun out by the corporate of the United States pay with their lives for
media and Hollywood. Ordinary people in the actions of their government in Palestine,
the United States have been manipulated Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S.
into imagining they are a people under siege government has made the people of Afghan-
whose sole refuge and protector is their gov- istan pay in the thousands for the actions of
ernment. If it isn’t the Communists, it’s al the Taliban and the people of Iraq pay in the
Qaeda. If it isn’t Cuba, it’s Nicaragua. As a re- hundreds of thousands for the actions of
sult, the most powerful nation in the world Saddam Hussein. Whose God decides which
is peopled by a terrified citizenry jumping at is a “just war” and which isn’t? George Bush
shadows. A people bonded to the state not senior once said: “I will never apologize for
by social services, or public health care, or the United States. I don’t care what the facts
employment guarantees, but by fear. are.” When the president of the most power-
This synthetically manufactured fear is ful country in the world doesn’t need to care
used to gain public sanction for further acts what the facts are, then we can be sure we
of aggression. And so it goes, building into have entered the Age of Empire.
a spiral of self-fulfilling hysteria, now for-
mally calibrated by the U.S government’s Real choices
Amazing Technicolored Terror Alerts: So what does public power mean in the
fuchsia, turquoise, salmon pink. Age of Empire? Does it mean anything at
To outside observers, this merging of sarkar all? Does it actually exist? In these allegedly
and public in the United States sometimes democratic times, conventional political
makes it hard to separate the actions of the thought holds that public power is exer-
government from the people. Such confusion cised through the ballot. People in scores of
fuels anti-Americanism in the world—anti- countries around the world will go to the
Americanism that is seized upon and ampli- polls this year. Most (not all) of them will
fied by the U.S. government and its faithful get the governments they vote for. But will
media outlets. You know the routine: “Why they get the governments they want?
do they hate us? They hate our freedoms,” et In India this year, we voted the Hindu na-
cetera. This enhances the U.S. people’s sense tionalists of the BJP out of office. But even
of isolation, making the embrace between as we celebrated, we knew that on nuclear
sarkar and public even more intimate. bombs, neoliberalism, privatization, cen-
Over the last few years, the “war on ter- sorship, big dams—on every major issue
rorism” has mutated into the more generic other than overt Hindu nationalism—the
“war on terror.” Using the threat of an ex- Congress and the BJP have no major ideo-
ternal enemy to rally people behind you is logical differences. We know that it is the
a tired old horse that politicians have rid- 50-year legacy of the Congress Party that
den into power for centuries. But could it prepared the ground culturally and politi-
be that ordinary people, fed up with that cally for the far right.
poor old horse, are looking for something And what of the U.S. elections? Did U.S.
different? Before Washington’s illegal in- voters have a real choice? The U.S. political sys-

IN THESE TIMES JANUARY 3, 2005 17

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tem has been carefully crafted to ensure that tate them, all under the fluttering banner of
poor people in many countries, Empire
no one who questions the natural goodness “reform.” As a consequence of such reform,
does not always appear in the form of cruise
of the military-industrial corporate structure thousands of small enterprises and indus-
missiles and tanks, as it has in Iraq or Af-
will be allowed through the portals of power. tries have closed; millions of workers and
ghanistan or Vietnam. It appears in their
Given this, it’s no surprise that in this election farmers have lost their jobs and land. lives in very local avatars—losing their jobs,
you had two Yale University graduates, both Once the free market controls the econo-
being sent unpayable electricity bills, having
members of Skull and Bones, the same secret mies of the Third World they become en- their water supply cut, being evicted from
society, both millionaires, both playing at sol- meshed in an elaborate, carefully calibrated
their homes and uprooted from their land.
dier-solider, both talking up war, and arguing system of economic inequality. Western It is a process of relentless impoverishment
almost childishly about who would lead the countries flood the markets of poorer na-with which the poor are historically famil-
war on terror more effectively. It’s not a real tions with their subsidized agricultural goods
iar. What Empire does is further entrench
choice. It’s an apparent choice. Like choosing and other products with which local produc-
and exacerbate already existing inequalities.
a brand of detergent. Whether you buy Ivory ers cannot possibly compete. Countries thatUntil quite recently, it was sometimes diffi-
Snow or Tide, they’re both owned by Procter have been plundered by colonizing regimes
cult for people to see themselves as victims of
& Gamble. The fact is that electoral democ- are steeped in debt to these same powers, and
Empire. But now, local struggles have begun
racy has become a process of cynical ma- have to repay them at the rate of about $382
to see their role with increasing clarity. How-
nipulation. It offers us a very reduced political billion a year. The rich get richer and the poor
ever grand it might sound, the fact is, they are
space today. To believe that this space consti- get poorer—not accidentally, but by design.
confronting Empire in their own, very differ-
tutes real choice would be naive. The crisis of To put a vulgar point on all of this, the
ent ways. Differently in Iraq, in South Africa,
modern democracy is a profound one. Free combined wealth of the world’s billionaires in
in India, in Argentina, and differently, for
elections, a free press and an independent ju- 2004 (587 “individuals and family units”), ac-
that matter, on the streets of Europe and the
diciary mean little when the free market has cording to Forbes magazine, is $.9 trillion—
United States. This is the beginning of real
globalization. The globaliza-
tion of dissent.
We must expose the policies and processes that make ordinary Meanwhile, the rift be-
tween rich and poor is be-
things—food, water, shelter and dignity—such a distant dream ing driven deeper and the
battle to control the world’s
for ordinary people. The real preemptive strike is to understand resources intensifies. Eco-
that wars are the end result of a flawed and unjust peace. nomic colonialism through
formal military aggression
is staging a comeback.
reduced them to commodities available on more than the gross domestic product of the Iraq today is a tragic illustration of this
sale to the highest bidder. world’s 35 poorest countries combined. The process. The illegal invasion. The brutal
On the global stage, beyond the juris- good news is that there are  more billion- occupation in the name of liberation. The
diction of sovereign governments, inter- aires this year than there were in 2003. rewriting of laws to allow the shameless
national instruments of trade and finance Modern democracy is safely premised appropriation of the country’s wealth and
oversee a complex web of multilateral laws on an almost religious acceptance of the resources by corporations allied to the oc-
and agreements that have entrenched a nation state. But corporate globalization is cupation. And now the charade of a sover-
system of appropriation that puts colonial- not. Liquid capital is not. So even though eign “Iraqi government.”
ism to shame. This system allows the unre- capital needs the coercive powers of the The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the
stricted entry and exit of massive amounts nation state to put down revolts in the ser- frontlines of the battle against Empire. And
of speculative capital into and out of Third vants’ quarters, this setup ensures that no therefore that battle is our battle. Before we
World countries, which then effectively individual nation can oppose corporate prescribe how a pristine Iraqi resistance must
dictates their economic policy. Using the globalization on its own. conduct a secular, feminist, democratic, non-
threat of capital flight as a lever, interna- violent battle, we should shore up our end of
tional capital insinuates itself deeper and Public power the resistance by forcing the U.S. government
deeper into these economies. Giant trans- Radical change cannot and will not be and its allies to withdraw from Iraq.
national corporations are taking control of negotiated by governments; it can only be
their essential infrastructure and natural enforced by people. By the public. A public Resistance across borders
resources, their minerals, their water, their that can link hands across national borders. The first militant confrontation in the
electricity. The World Trade Organization, A public that disagrees with the very con- United States between the global justice
the World Bank, the International Mon- cept of empire. A public that has set itself movement and the neoliberal junta took
etary Fund and other financial institutions, against the governments and institutions place at the WTO conference in Seattle in
like the Asian Development Bank, virtually that support and service Empire. December 999. To many mass movements
write economic policy and parliamentary Empire has a range of calling cards. It uses in developing countries that had long been
legislation. With a deadly combination of different weapons to break open different fighting lonely, isolated battles, Seattle was
arrogance and ruthlessness, they take their markets. There’s no country on God’s earth the first delightful sign that people in im-
sledgehammers to fragile, interdependent, that isn’t caught in the crosshairs of the U.S. perialist countries shared their anger and
historically complex societies, and devas- cruise missile and the IMF checkbook. For their vision of another kind of world. As

18 JANUARY 3, 2005 IN THESE TIMES

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resistance movements have begun to reach The disturbing thing nowadays is that re- NGO-ization
out across national borders and pose a real sistance as spectacle has cut loose from its A second hazard facing mass movements
threat, governments have developed their origins in genuine civil disobedience and is is the NGO-ization of resistance. Some
own strategies for dealing with them, rang- becoming more symbolic than real. Color- nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)
ing from co-optation to repression. ful demonstrations and weekend marches of course do valuable work, but it’s impor-
Three contemporary dangers confront are fun and vital, but alone they are not tant to consider the NGO phenomenon in
resistance movements: the difficult meet- powerful enough to stop wars. Wars will be a broader political context.
ing point between mass movements and stopped only when soldiers refuse to fight, Most large, well-funded NGOs are fi-
the mass media, the hazards of the NGO- when workers refuse to load weapons onto nanced and patronized by aid and develop-
ization of resistance, and the confronta- ships and aircraft, when people boycott ment agencies, which are in turn funded by
tion between resistance movements and the economic outposts of Empire that are Western governments, the World Bank, the
increasingly repressive states. strung across the globe. United Nations and some multinational cor-
The place in which the mass media meets If we want to reclaim the space for civil porations. Though they may not be the very
mass movements is a complicated one. Gov- disobedience, we must liberate ourselves same agencies, they are certainly part of the
ernments have learned that a crisis-driven from the tyranny of crisis reportage and its same loose political formation that oversees
T Press ad #media
6894 -cannot
In Theseafford
Timesto hang
- 1/2 about
page inx the
- 73/8 4 1/2 fear of the mundane. We must use our expe-
- January the neoliberal project and demands the slash
same place for too long. Just as a business rience, our imagination and our art to inter- in government spending in the first place.
needs cash turnover, the media need cri- rogate those instruments of state that ensure Why should these agencies fund NGOs?
sis turnover. Whole countries become old “normality” remains what it is: cruel, unjust, Could it be just old-fashioned missionary
news, and cease to exist, and the darkness unacceptable. We must expose the policies zeal? NGOs give the impression that they are
becomes deeper than before the light was and processes that make ordinary things— filling the vacuum created by a retreating
briefly shone on them. food, water, shelter and dignity—such a dis- state. And they are, but in a materially incon-
While governments hone the art of waiting tant dream for ordinary people. The real pre- sequential way. Their real contribution is that
out crises, resistance movements are increas- emptive strike is to understand that wars are they defuse political anger and dole out as aid
ingly ensnared in a vortex of crisis produc- the end result of a flawed and unjust peace. or benevolence what people ought to have
tion that seeks to find ways of manufacturing For mass resistance movements, no by right. They alter the public psyche, they
them in easily consumable, spectator-friendly amount of media coverage can make up for turn people into dependent victims and they
formats. For this reason, starvation deaths are strength on the ground. There is no alterna- blunt the edges of political resistance. NGOs
more effective at publicizing impoverishment tive, really, to old-fashioned, back-breaking form a sort of buffer between the sarkar and
than malnourished people in the millions. political mobilization. public. Between Continued on page 28

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IN THESE TIMES JANUARY 3, 2005 19

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vi ew s in m ains tre am Western press ac-
Bianch i’s
BU EN OS AI RE S —You
will not read about Luis na nc ia l inst itu tio ns . Luis Bianchi drives his
obal fi
ugh negotiations with gl hours a day, with an hour
or so off
counts of Argentina’s to r 12, 14 , som et im es 16
w taxi here, fo
battered black and yello is 75 ye ar s ol d, but he is too poor to retir
e.
en stop
for the early afternoon m
ea l. He
s, un til I’m 80 ,” he sa ys . “The government will th
her five year
“I hope to work for anot we should be able to ge
t by.”
renewing m y license. But by then
b. Th ey ar e he lp ing ou t his three children,
low-paid government jo out of work. Another 15
His wife, who is 62, has a of th e co un try w ho are
e estimated 19 percent e below the poverty line.
one of whom is part of th pl oy ed ; 44 pe rc en t liv
e underem
percent of Argentines ar

ALong Climb
ize d A rg e n ti n e d e m o cracy
An energ st th e IMF,
is ho ldin g it s o w n a g a in
w lo n g ? B y Ja m es N o rth
but for ho

Argentinean railworkers
who can’t afford
housing live in 100-
year-old train cars under
threat of eviction.

20 JANUARY 3, 2005 IN THESE TIMES

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