Public Power in the Age of Empire
The text of "Public Power in the Age of Empire" is based on a
public address that Arundhati Roy delivered to an overflow crowd
at the American Sociological Association's 99th Annual Meeting
in San Francisco, California, on August 16, 2004. The theme of
the conference was "Public Sociologies."
By Arundhati Roy
06/15/07---- (First published 08/17/04) -- - "ICH" -- -- WHEN
language has been butchered and bled of meaning, how do we
understand "public power"? When freedom means occupation, when
democracy means neoliberal 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,
fifty-seven 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
Either way, for most Indians, sarkar is very separate from
public. 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. It sees like the state,
thinks like the state, 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 U.S. 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, 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 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 U.S. 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. It is this confusion that fuels
anti-Americanism in the world. Anti-Americanism is then 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 sense of isolation
among people in the United States and makes the embrace between
sarkar and public even more intimate. Like Red Riding Hood
looking for a cuddle in the wolf's bed.
Two thousand and one was not the first year that the U.S.
government declared a "war on terrorism." As Noam Chomsky
reminds us, the first "war on terrorism" was declared by
President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s during the U.S.-sponsored
terrorist wars across Central America, the Middle East, and
Africa. The Reagan administration called terrorism a "plague
spread by depraved opponents of civilisation itself." In keeping
with this sentiment, in 1987, the United Nations General
Assembly proposed a strongly worded condemnation of terrorism.
One hundred and fifty-three countries voted for it. Only the
United States and Israel voted against it. They objected to a
passage that referred to "the right to self-determination,
freedom, and independence... of people forcibly deprived of that
right... particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes
and foreign occupation." Remember that in 1987, the United
States was a staunch ally of apartheid South Africa. The African
National Congress and Nelson Mandela were listed as
"terrorists." The term "foreign occupation" was taken to mean
Israel's occupation of Palestine.
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 are fed up with 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 per cent. 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.
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 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
The crucial difference is that nobody really elected Al Qaeda,
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
were for the actions of Saddam Hussein or Afghans for the
Whose God decides which is a "just war" and which isn't? George
Bush senior 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, neoliberalism, 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 fifty-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. It passed legislation that
encouraged the privatisation of water and power, the dismantling
of the public sector, and the denationalisation of public
companies. It enforced cutbacks in government spending on
education and health, and weakened labour laws that protected
workers' rights. The BJP took this process forward with pitiless
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, the 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 neoliberalism'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 stock market crash as though
Pakistan had launched ICBMs 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
AND what of the U.S. elections? Do U.S. voters have a real
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 backs of Dick Cheney or
Donald Rumsfeld or John Ashcroft or an end to 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
Unfortunately, the U.S. elections have 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 U.S. 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 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
Like President Bill Clinton before him, Kerry will continue the
expansion of U.S. 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 "completely." He says he'll retain 98 per cent of
Bush's tax cuts.
So, underneath the shrill exchange of insults, there is almost
absolute consensus. It looks as though even if people in the
United States 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
I.Qs and levels of ruthlessness between this year's U.S.
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 why is it that the Democrats do not even have to pretend to
be against the invasion and occupation of Iraq? 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 U.S. imperialism preferable if it is supported
by the United Nations and European countries? Is it preferable
if the U.N. asks Indian and Pakistani soldiers to do the killing
and dying in Iraq instead of U.S. 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
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. 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 bidder.
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 - 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
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. Anyone who criticises this process is mocked for
being "anti-reform," anti-progress, anti-development. Somehow a
The Spectator newspaper in London assures us that "[w]e live in
the happiest, healthiest and most peaceful era in human
Billions wonder: who's "we"? Where does he live? What's his
Once the economies of Third World countries are controlled by
the free market, they are enmeshed in an elaborate, carefully
calibrated system of economic inequality. For example, Western
countries that together spend more than a billion dollars a day
on subsidies to farmers demand that poor countries withdraw all
agricultural subsidies, including subsidised electricity. Then
they flood the markets of poor countries with their subsidised
agricultural goods and other products with which local producers
cannot possibly compete.
Countries that have been plundered by colonising regimes are
steeped in debt to these same powers, and have to repay them at
the rate of about $382 billion a year. Ergo, the rich get richer
and the poor get poorer - not accidentally, but by design. By
To put a vulgar point on all of this - the truth is getting more
vulgar by the minute - the combined wealth of the world's
billionaires in 2004 (587 "individuals and family units"),
according to Forbes magazine, is $1.9 trillion. This is more
than the gross domestic product of the world's 135 poorest
countries combined. The good news is that there are 111 more
billionaires this year than there were in 2003. Isn't that fun?
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.
Time and again we have seen the heroes of our times, giants in
opposition, suddenly diminished. President Lula of Brazil was
the hero of the World Social Forum in January 2002. Now he's
busy implementing IMF guidelines, reducing pension benefits and
purging radicals from the Workers' Party. Lula has a worthy
predecessor in the former President of South Africa, Nelson
Mandela, who instituted a massive programme of privatisation and
structural adjustment that has left thousands of people
homeless, jobless, and without water and electricity. When Harry
Oppenheimer died in August 2000, Mandela called him "one of the
great South Africans of our time." Oppenheimer was the head of
Anglo-American, one of South Africa's largest mining companies,
which made its money exploiting cheap black labour made
available by the repressive apartheid regime.
Why does this happen? It is neither true nor useful to dismiss
Mandela or Lula as weak or treacherous people. It's important to
understand the nature of the beast they were up against. The
moment they crossed the floor from the opposition into
government they became hostage to a spectrum of threats - most
malevolent among them the threat of capital flight, which can
destroy any government overnight. To imagine that a leader's
personal charisma and history of struggle will dent the
corporate cartel is to have no understanding of how capitalism
works, or for that matter, how power works.
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 that disagrees with the very concept of Empire. A
public that has set itself against incumbent power -
international, national, regional, or provincial governments and
institutions that support and service Empire.
Of course those of us who live in Empire's subject nations are
aware that in the great cities of Europe and the United States,
where a few years ago these things would only have been
whispered, there is now open talk about the benefits of
imperialism and the need for a strong empire to police an unruly
world. It wasn't long ago that colonialism also sanctified
itself as a "civilising mission". So we can't give these pundits
high marks for originality.
We are aware that New Imperialism is being marketed as a "lesser
evil" in a less-than-perfect world. Occasionally some of us are
invited to "debate" the merits of imperialism on "neutral"
platforms provided by the corporate media. It's like debating
slavery. It isn't a subject that deserves the dignity of a
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. There isn't a country on God's
earth that is not caught in the cross hairs of the U.S. cruise
missile and the IMF checkbook. Argentina is the model if you
want to be the poster boy of neoliberal capitalism, Iraq if
you're the black sheep.
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 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 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 filmmakers have come together to strip Empire of
its sheen. They have connected the dots, turned cash-flow charts
and boardroom speeches into real stories about real people and
real despair. They have shown how the neoliberal 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 people's
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 neoliberal project.
Most of these are radical struggles, fighting to change the
structure and chosen model of "development" of their own
Then there are those fighting formal and brutal neocolonial
occupations in contested territories whose boundaries and fault
lines were often arbitrarily drawn last century by the
imperialist powers. In Palestine, Tibet, Chechnya, Kashmir, and
several States in India's northeastern 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 where 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 foot soldiers 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, 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
U.S. 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
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 Baathists, 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.
A whole industry of development experts, academics, and
consultants have built an industry on the back of global social
movements in which they are not direct participants. Many of
these "experts," who earn their livings studying the struggles
of the world's poor, are funded by groups like the Ford
Foundation, the World Bank, and wealthy universities such
Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell. From a safe distance, they offer
us their insightful critiques. But the same people who tell us
that we can reform the World Bank from within, that we change
the IMF by working inside it, would not themselves seek to
reform a resistance movement by working within it.
This is not to say that we should never 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
a secular, feminist, democratic, nonviolent battle, we should
shore up our end of the resistance by forcing the U.S.
government and its allies to withdraw from Iraq.
THE first militant confrontation in the United States between
the global justice movement and the neoliberal junta took place
famously 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 their anger and their vision of another
kind of world was shared by people in the imperialist countries.
In January 2001, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 20,000 activists,
students, filmmakers - some of the best minds in the world -
came together to share their experiences and exchange ideas
about confronting Empire. That was the birth of the now historic
World Social Forum. It was the first formal coming together of
an exciting, anarchic, unindoctrinated, energetic, new kind of
"public power." The rallying cry of the WSF is "Another World is
Possible." The forum has become a platform where hundreds of
conversations, debates, and seminars have helped to hone and
refine a vision of what kind of world it should be. By January
2004, when the fourth WSF was held in Mumbai, India, it
attracted 200,000 delegates. I have never been part of a more
electrifying gathering. It was a sign of the social forum's
success that the mainstream media in India ignored it
completely. But now the WSF is threatened by its own success.
The safe, open, festive atmosphere of the forum has allowed
politicians and non-governmental organisations that are
imbricated in the political and economic systems that the forum
opposes to participate and make themselves heard.
Another danger is that the WSF, which has played such a vital
role in the movement for global justice, runs the risk of
becoming an end unto itself. Just organising it every year
consumes the energies of some of the best activists. If
conversations about resistance replace real civil disobedience,
then the WSF could become an asset to those whom it was created
to oppose. The forum must be held and must grow, but we have to
find ways to channel our conversations there back into concrete
As resistance movements have begun to reach out across national
borders and pose a real threat, governments have developed their
own strategies of how to deal with them. They range from
cooptation to repression.
I'm going to speak about three of the contemporary dangers that
confront resistance movements: the difficult meeting point
between mass movements and the mass media, the hazards of the
NGO-isation of resistance, and the confrontation between
resistance movements and increasingly repressive states.
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. Like a business needs cash turnover, the media need crises
turnover. Whole countries become old news. They cease to exist,
and the darkness becomes deeper than before the light was
briefly shone on them. We saw it happen in Afghanistan when the
Soviets withdrew. And now, after Operation Enduring Freedom put
the CIA's Hamid Karzai in place, Afghanistan has been thrown to
its warlords once more. Another CIA operative, Iyad Allawi, has
been installed in Iraq, so perhaps it's time for the media to
move on from there, too.
While governments hone the art of waiting out crises, resistance
movements are increasingly being ensnared in a vortex of crisis
production, seeking to find ways of manufacturing them in easily
consumable, spectator-friendly formats. Every self-respecting
people's movement, every "issue," is expected to have its own
hot air balloon in the sky advertising its brand and purpose.
For this reason, starvation deaths are more effective
advertisements for impoverishment than millions of malnourished
people, who don't quite make the cut. Dams are not newsworthy
until the devastation they wreak makes good television. (And by
then, it's too late.)
Standing in the rising water of a reservoir for days on end,
watching your home and belongings float away to protest against
a big dam used to be an effective strategy, but isn't any more.
The media is dead bored of that one. So the hundreds of
thousands of people being displaced by dams are expected to
either conjure new tricks or give up the struggle.
Resistance as spectacle, as political theatre, has a history.
Gandhi's salt march in 1931 to Dandi is among the most
exhilarating examples. But the salt march wasn't theatre alone.
It was the symbolic part of a larger act of real civil
disobedience. When Gandhi and an army of freedom fighters
marched to Gujarat's coast and made salt from seawater,
thousands of Indians across the country began to make their own
salt, openly defying imperial Britain's salt tax laws, which
banned local salt production in favour of British salt imports.
It was a direct strike at the economic underpinning of the
The disturbing thing nowadays is that resistance as spectacle
has cut loose from its origins in genuine civil disobedience and
is beginning to become more symbolic than real. Colourful
demonstrations and weekend marches are vital but alone 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 will
have to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of crisis reportage
and its fear of the mundane. We have to use our experience, our
imagination, and our art to interrogate those instruments of
state that ensure that "normality" remains what it is: cruel,
unjust, unacceptable. We have to expose the policies and
processes that make ordinary things - food, water, shelter and
dignity - such a distant dream for ordinary people. The real
pre-emptive strike is to understand that wars are the end result
of a flawed and unjust peace.
As far as mass resistance movements are concerned, the fact is
that no amount of media coverage can make up for mass strength
on the ground. There is no option, really, to old-fashioned,
back-breaking political mobilisation. Corporate globalisation
has increased the distance between those who make decisions and
those who have to suffer the effects of those decisions. Forums
like the WSF enable local resistance movements to reduce that
distance and to link up with their counterparts in rich
countries. That alliance is a formidable one. For example, when
India's first private dam, the Maheshwar Dam, was being built,
alliances between the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the NBA), the
German organisation Urgewald, the Berne Declaration in
Switzerland, and the International Rivers Network in Berkeley
worked together to push a series of international banks and
corporations out of the project. This would not have been
possible had there not been a rock solid resistance movement on
the ground. The voice of that local movement was amplified by
supporters on the global stage, embarrassing investors and
forcing them to withdraw.
An infinite number of similar alliances, targeting specific
projects and specific corporations would help to make another
world possible. We should begin with the corporations who did
business with Saddam Hussein and now profit from the devastation
and occupation of Iraq.
A second hazard facing mass movements is the NGO-isation of
resistance. It will be easy to twist what I'm about to say into
an indictment of all NGOs. That would be a falsehood. In the
murky waters of fake NGOs set up to siphon off grant money or as
tax dodges (in States like Bihar, they are given as dowry), of
course there are NGOs doing valuable work. But it's important to
turn our attention away from the positive work being done by
some individual NGOs, and consider the NGO phenomenon in a
broader political context.
In India, for instance, the funded NGO boom began in the late
1980s and 1990s. It coincided with the opening of India's
markets to neoliberalism. At the time, the Indian state, in
keeping with the requirements of structural adjustment, was
withdrawing funding from rural development, agriculture, energy,
transport, and public health. As the state abdicated its
traditional role, NGOs moved in to work in these very areas. The
difference, of course, is that the funds available to them are a
minuscule fraction of the actual cut in public spending. Most
large well-funded NGOs are financed and patronised by aid and
development agencies, which are in turn funded by Western
governments, the World Bank, the U.N., 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? Guilt? It's a little more than
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 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. They play out the role of the "reasonable man" in an
unfair, unreasonable war.
In the long run, NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to
the people they work among. They're what botanists would call an
indicator species. It's almost as though the greater the
devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of
NGOs. Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than the
phenomenon of the U.S. preparing to invade a country and
simultaneously readying NGOs to go in and clean up the
In order to make sure their funding is not jeopardised and that
the governments of the countries they work in will allow them to
function, NGOs have to present their work - whether it's in a
country devastated by war, poverty or an epidemic of disease -
within a shallow framework more or less shorn of a political or
historical context. At any rate, an inconvenient historical or
political context. It's not for nothing that the "NGO
perspective" is becoming increasingly respected.
Apolitical (and therefore, actually, extremely political)
distress reports from poor countries and war zones eventually
make the (dark) people of those (dark) countries seem like
pathological victims. Another malnourished Indian, another
starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee camp, another maimed
Sudanese... in need of the white man's help. They unwittingly
reinforce racist stereotypes and re-affirm the achievements, the
comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of Western
civilisation, minus the guilt of the history of genocide,
colonialism, and slavery. They're 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.
It turns confrontation into negotiation. It depoliticises
resistance. It interferes with local people's movements that
have traditionally been self-reliant. NGOs have funds that can
employ local people who might otherwise be activists in
resistance movements, but now can feel they are doing some
immediate, creative good (and earning a living while they're at
it). Charity offers instant gratification to the giver, as well
as the receiver, but its side effects can be dangerous. Real
political resistance offers no such short cuts.
The NGO-isation of politics threatens to turn resistance into a
well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few
perks thrown in.
Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.
This brings us to a third danger I want to speak about tonight:
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 in the demonstrations in Seattle, in Miami, in
Gothenburg, in Genoa.
In the United States, you have the USA PATRIOT Act, which has
become a blueprint for anti-terrorism 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.
Some governments have vast experience in the business of curbing
freedoms and still smelling sweet. The government of India, an
old hand at the game, lights the path. Over the years the Indian
government has passed a plethora of laws that allow it to call
almost anyone a terrorist, an insurgent, a militant. We have the
Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Public Security Act, the
Special Areas Security Act, the Gangster Act, the Terrorist and
Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (which has formally
lapsed, but under which people are still facing trial), and,
most recently, POTA (the Prevention of Terrorism Act), the
broad-spectrum antibiotic for the disease of dissent.
There are other steps that are being taken, such as court
judgments that in effect curtail free speech, the right of
government workers to go on strike, the right to life and
livelihood. Courts have begun to micro-manage our lives in
India. And criticising the courts is a criminal offence.
But coming back to the counterterrorism initiatives, over the
last decade the number of people who have been killed by the
police and security forces runs into the tens of thousands. In
the state of Andhra Pradesh (the pin-up girl of corporate
globalisation in India), an average of about 200 "extremists"
are killed in what are called "encounters" every year. The
Mumbai police boast of how many "gangsters" they have killed in
"shoot outs." In Kashmir, in a situation that almost amounts to
war, an estimated 80,000 people have been killed since 1989.
Thousands have simply "disappeared." In the northeastern
provinces, the situation is similar.
In recent years, the Indian police have opened fire on unarmed
people at peaceful demonstrations, mostly Dalit and Adivasi. The
preferred method is to kill them and then call them terrorists.
India is not alone, though. We have seen similar things happen
in countries such Bolivia and Chile. In the era of
neoliberalism, poverty is a crime and protesting against it is
more and more being defined as terrorism.
In India, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) is often called
the Production of Terrorism Act. It's a versatile, hold-all law
that could apply to anyone from an Al Qaeda operative to a
disgruntled bus conductor. As with all anti-terrorism laws, the
genius of POTA is that it can be whatever the government wants.
For example, in Tamil Nadu, it has been used to imprison and
silence critics of the State government. In Jharkhand 3,200
people, mostly poor Adivasis accused of being Maoists, have been
named in criminal complaints under POTA. In Gujarat and Mumbai,
the Act is used almost exclusively against Muslims. After the
2002 state-assisted pogrom in Gujarat, in which an estimated
2,000 Muslims were savagely killed by Hindu mobs and 150,000
driven from their homes, 287 people have been accused under
POTA. Of these, 286 are Muslim and one is a Sikh.
POTA allows confessions extracted in police custody to be
admitted as judicial evidence. In effect, torture tends to
replace investigation. The South Asia Human Rights Documentation
Centre reports that India has the highest number of torture and
custodial deaths in the world. Government records show that
there were 1,307 deaths in judicial custody in 2002 alone.
A few months ago, I was a member of a people's tribunal on POTA.
Over a period of two days, we listened to harrowing testimonies
of what is happening in our wonderful democracy. It's everything
- from people being forced to drink urine, being stripped,
humiliated, given electric shocks, burned with cigarette butts,
having iron rods put up their anuses, to people being beaten and
kicked to death.
The new government has promised to repeal POTA. I'd be surprised
if that happens before similar legislation under a different
name is put in place.
When every avenue of nonviolent dissent is closed down, and
everyone who protests against the violation of their human
rights is called a terrorist, should we really be surprised if
vast parts of the country are overrun by those who believe in
armed struggle and are more or less beyond the control of the
state: in Kashmir, the northeastern provinces, large parts of
Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh.
Ordinary people in these regions are trapped between the
violence of the militants and the state.
In Kashmir, the Indian Army estimates that 3,000 to 4,000
militants are operating at any given time. To control them, the
Indian government deploys about 500,000 soldiers. Clearly, it
isn't just the militants the Army seeks to control, but a whole
population of humiliated, unhappy people who see the Indian Army
as an occupation force. The primary purpose of laws like POTA is
not to target real terrorists or militants, who are usually
simply shot. Anti-terrorism laws are used to intimidate civil
society. Inevitably, such repression has the effect of fuelling
discontent and anger.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act allows not just officers,
but even junior commissioned officers and non-commissioned
officers of the army, to use force and even kill any person on
suspicion of disturbing public order. It was first imposed on a
few districts in the State of Manipur in 1958. Today, it applies
to virtually all of the northeast and Kashmir. The documentation
of instances of torture, disappearances, custodial deaths, rape,
and summary execution by security forces is enough to turn your
In Andhra Pradesh, in India's heartland, the militant
Marxist-Leninist People's War Group - which for years has been
engaged in a violent armed struggle and has been the principal
target of many of the Andhra police's fake "encounters" - held
its first public meeting in years on July 28, 2004, in the town
The former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu
Naidu, liked to call himself the CEO of the State. In return for
his enthusiasm in implementing structural adjustment, Andhra
Pradesh received millions of dollars of aid from the World Bank
and development agencies such as Britain's Department for
International Development. As a result of structural adjustment,
Andhra Pradesh is now best known for two things: the hundreds of
suicides by farmers who were steeped in debt and the spreading
influence and growing militancy of the People's War Group.
During Naidu's term in office, the PWG were not arrested, or
captured, they were summarily shot.
In response, the PWG campaigned actively, and let it be said,
violently, against Naidu. In May, the Congress won the State
elections. The Naidu government didn't just lose, it was
humiliated in the polls. When the PWG called a public meeting,
it was attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Under POTA,
all of them are considered terrorists. Are they all going to be
detained in some Indian equivalent of Guantanamo Bay? The whole
of the northeast and the Kashmir Valley is in ferment. What will
the government do with these millions of people?
One does not endorse the violence of these 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 are in no doubt
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?
THERE is no discussion taking place in the world today that 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.
After all, when the U.S. invades and occupies Iraq in the way it
has done, with such overwhelming military force, can the
resistance be expected to be a conventional military one? (Of
course, even if it were conventional, it would still be called
terrorist.) In a strange sense, the U.S. government's arsenal of
weapons and unrivalled air and fire power makes terrorism an
all-but-inescapable response. What people lack in wealth and
power, they will make up for with stealth and strategy.
In the twenty-first century, the connection between corporate
globalisation, religious fundamentalism, nuclear nationalism,
and the pauperisation of whole populations is becoming
impossible to ignore. The unrest has myriad manifestations:
terrorism, armed struggle, nonviolent mass resistance, and
In this restive, despairing time, if governments do not do all
they can to honour 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. But instead
nonviolent resistance movements are being crushed. Any kind of
mass political mobilisation or organisation is being bought off,
broken, or simply ignored.
Meanwhile, governments and the corporate media, and let's not
forget the film industry, lavish their time, attention, funds,
technology, research, and admiration 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.
As the rift between the rich and poor grows, as the need to
appropriate and control the world's resources to feed the great
capitalist machine becomes more urgent, the unrest will only
For those of us who are on the wrong side of Empire, the
humiliation is becoming unbearable. Each of the Iraqi children
killed by the United States was our child. Each of the prisoners
tortured in Abu Ghraib was our comrade. Each of their screams
was ours. When they were humiliated, we were humiliated.
The U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq - mostly volunteers in a
poverty draft from small towns and poor urban neighbourhoods -
are victims, just as much as the Iraqis, of the same horrendous
process, which asks them to die for a victory that will never be
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 dehumanising for its
perpetrators as well as its victims. But so is war. You could
say that terrorism is the privatisation 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.
Human society is journeying to a terrible place.
Of course, there is an alternative to terrorism. It's called
It's time to recognise that no amount of nuclear weapons, or
full-spectrum dominance, or "daisy cutters," or spurious
governing councils and loya jirgas, can buy peace at the cost of
The urge for hegemony and preponderance by some will be matched
with greater intensity by the longing for dignity and justice by
Exactly what form that battle takes, whether it is beautiful or
bloodthirsty, depends on us.
Arundhati Roy is the author of the novel, The God of Small
Things, for which she was awarded the Booker Prize in 1997. She
has also published four essay collections: An Ordinary Person's
Guide to Empire, War Talk, Power Politics, and The Cost of
Living, and is the subject of The Checkbook and the Cruise
Missile: Interviews with Arundhati Roy, edited by David
Barsamian. Roy received the 2002 Lannan Award for Cultural
Freedom from the Lannan Foundation. Trained as an architect, Roy
lives in New Delhi, India.
© 2004 Arundhati Roy
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