From edition

Elizabeth Jackson: An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2004).

Review by Elizabeth Jackson, English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University

“Part of what we do as intellectuals is not only to define the situation but also to discern the possibilities for active intervention, whether we then perform them ourselves or acknowledge them in others who have either gone before or are already at work, the intellectual as lookout.” (Edward Said, “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.”)

In this collection of speeches and essays, all broadcast or published between March 2003 and April 2004, Roy is a public intellectual and lookout in top form. She lays out in clear, persuasive prose, and with unflinching attention to detail, the systemic function and horrifying extent of contemporary imperialism and its implications for the world’s most vulnerable as well as those who supposedly – at least currently – benefit from it. What I most appreciate about Roy’s work is the frankness of her voice, the clear and articulate way she justifies her positions, and the passionate dedication to justice that shows through in her willingness to speak difficult truths as she sees them.

At many moments in this book, I wish I could step into the space of Roy’s speech and hear audiences’ reactions to her statements. At the 2004 World Social Forum in Bombay, India, for example, when Roy criticized Nelson Mandela’s “program of privatization and structural adjustment” for having left many South Africans “homeless, jobless, and without water and electricity,” did a sharp, defensive gasp circle the room (90)? Were people shocked by this blunt appraisal of the powerlessness of formerly radical heroes who join formal government, or had they heard it before? What was it like to be among the listeners at Aligarh Muslim University urged by Roy to emulate some – though emphatically not all – of the strategies of the nationalist Hindu Right, the very groups behind the recent destruction of the 16th century Babri Marjid mosque? In this case, Roy’s compelling argument is that public spaces must be reclaimed as sites of resistance, negotiation, and struggle against oppression. She contends that “it cannot be denied that [the Hindu Right are] out there, working extremely hard” to channel “the anger, the frustration, the indignity of daily life – and dreams of a different future,” while “the traditional, mainstream left…remains strangely unbending” (114-5). What stands out to me in these instances and throughout Roy’s body of work is the unflinching and assertive way in which she speaks her truths: my impression is that she works with a careful attention to her audiences’ concerns, knowledge, and blind spots, and insistently pushes us beyond our accustomed habits of thought and expression. If there are understandings we can only come to through discomfort, Roy seems committed to prompting us through this process and into productive action.

The scope of Roy’s discussion is broad, the bulk of her evidence weighty, and yet her core messages are never lost from view. Some of the major refrains of this collection have to do with the ever-deteriorating, always illusory ‘free press’ and the need for truly independent media; the need to insist upon and assert a role for non-violent protest and resistance to imperializing projects; and the need to understand – and then denounce – grinding poverty as a form of violence. Roy is painfully eloquent on each of these points. For example, she insists in a talk entitled “Peace is War” that “The real crisis [is] the dispossession, the disempowerment, the daily violation of the democratic rights and the dignity of not thousands but millions of people, which has been set into motion not by accident but by deliberate design…” (20). Over it all, Roy’s key argument, persuasively articulated and defended, is that the whole range of struggles and injustices she documents –such injustices as international policy, desperate poverty, the spread of diseases such as AIDS, and the wildly disproportionate rates of incarceration and disenfranchisement of African American men – are all elements of a broader project of US-based New Imperialism. As Roy contends:

“It’s become clear that the War on Terror is not really about terror, and the War on Iraq is not only about oil. It’s about a superpower’s self-destructive impulse toward supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony. The argument is being made that the people of Argentina and Iraq have both been decimated by the same process. Only the weapons used against them differ: In the one case it’s an IMF checkbook. In the other, the cruise missiles” (34).

“The real and pressing danger, the greatest threat of all, is the locomotive force that drives the political and economic engine of the US government…It’s true that [Bush is] a dangerous, almost suicidal pilot, but the machine he handles is far more dangerous that the man himself” (38).

While the bulk of her discussion is dedicated to laying bare the workings of Empire in contemporary global politics, Roy takes several important opportunities to extend her proposals and pleas for newly-invigorated forms of intervention and resistance. I am obviously in agreement with reviewers’ glowing accounts of Roy’s sharp-tongued denunciation of injustice and her incredible catalogues of proof of the ongoing exploitation and injustices that characterize life under the global, US-led Empire. What is often missing from these responses that I would like to attend to here is the question of how committed readers might respond to this text. What shall we do if we are among those readers that find ourselves nodding in agreement, or feeling the shock of recognition at having seen our own suspicions, fears and outrages given such powerful voice, or who are left stunned and outraged by some newly-discovered elements of the ongoing process of neo-imperialism, or “democratization?” [I know I felt a pang when I read Roy’s sharp statements that “Democracy has become Empire’s euphemism for neo-liberal capitalism” (56) and “Every kind of outrage is being committed in the name of democracy. It has become little more than a hollow word, a pretty shell, emptied of all content or meaning” (54).] What are we to do, then, once we’ve taken in and been moved by Roy’s book?

If we follow Roy’s arguments about the need for localized, grassroots movements, our responses will obviously take different shape according to the specificities of our lived experiences and particular historical and political contexts. Nonetheless, as I’ve suggested, Roy presents several suggestions for reinvigorated, concerted anti-Imperial activism. In her opening piece and throughout the collection, Roy argues persuasively that genuine freedom requires a genuinely free press, encouraging the use and development of non-partisan and independent media. On a related note, she says that activists (or, if that term makes you uneasy, resisters) must find ways to interrupt the mainstream media’s appetite for crisis and spectacle, and use our energies “to find a way of forcing the real issues back into the news” (13). Roy seems convinced that one major means toward this end, and to the broader goals of justice and genuine peace, is to revive the tradition of mass peaceful protest and civil disobedience. Workers in the US, for example, could go on conscientious strike and refuse to load and process weapons; Indian activists, and allies elsewhere, could declare themselves “peace correspondents” and “use our skills and imagination and our art, to re-create the rhythms of the endless crisis of normality, and in doing so, expose the policies and processes that make ordinary things – food, water, shelter, and dignity – such a distant dream for ordinary people” (16). Finally, and I will expand on this soon, I am intrigued and motivated by
Ro
y’s suggestion that “We could re
verse the idea of the economic sanctions imposed on poor countries by Empire and its Allies” and “impose a regime of Peoples’ Sanctions…” (66).

As I conclude my initial reflections on this collection, I’m particularly interested in what I see as a development in Roy’s thinking over the course of the 13 months during which she wrote and delivered these talks. She consistently applauds the mass mobilizations of February 15, 2003 in protest of the US government’s impending invasion of Iraq, and refers to the marches, involving over 10 million people on five continents, as “the most spectacular display of public morality the world has ever seen” (54). She is also deeply critical of the US and other governments’ blatant disregard for the will and values of the majority of their people as expressed through these marches and related campaigns. In her next-to-final essay, however, in another statement I wish I’d been there to hear, Roy’s tone becomes more forcefully challenging. Here, Roy takes the important – and perhaps risky – step of following her discussion of the anti-war protests with this simple, desolatingly apt statement: “It was wonderful, but it was not enough” (92). What is needed, she suggests, is a movement with teeth: one that “George Bush the Lesser” won’t be able to comfortably ignore; one which will not die down once the corporate-driven and spectacle-loving media have had their day. Finally, and most provocatively in my mind, Roy asserts that “This movement of ours,” rather than just being in the right, “needs a major global victory” (92). To meet this goal, and to help prevent the loss of interest that Bush and others anticipate and rely on, Roy suggests that members of grassroots and formalized movements, though our commitments don’t perfectly coincide, find a way of identifying and working toward a shared goal. Roy is careful to insist that such agreement needn’t “force-fit our delightfully factious, argumentative selves” into any over-arching ideology or uncompromising obedience (92). Rather, this collectivity could be formed around what Roy terms “a minimum agenda” (93). She suggests that the battle we choose, and the victory we aim for, be focused on the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. The logic here is hard to resist: “If all of us are indeed against imperialism and against the project of neo-liberalism,” Roy contends, then Iraq is the logical choice of shared project, because the situation there “is the inevitable culmination of both” (93).

I will close by reiterating Roy’s idea of “People’s Sanctions,” because I think they offer an attainable, tangible route to mass mobilization. Roy suggests that we impose such sanctions “on every corporate house that has been awarded a contract in post-war Iraq, just as activists in this country and around the world targeted institutions of apartheid. Each one of them should be named, exposed, and boycotted. Forced out of business. That could be our response to the Shock and Awe campaign. It would be a great beginning.”

Here, then, is an idea that can be quickly turned into a tangible plan of action against the “apocalyptic apparatus of the American Empire” (39). I hope to see – and to help – this emerging plan become a widespread reality: the potential ramifications could be breathtaking.

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