Empire: The Race is on for a Better World
by Arundhati Roy
I’ve been asked to speak about “How
to confront Empire?” It’s a huge
question, and I have no easy answers.
When we speak of confronting ‘Empire,’
we need to identify what ‘Empire’
means. Does it mean the U.S. government (and
its European satellites), the World Bank,
the International Monetary Fund, the World
Trade Organisation, and multinational corporations?
Or is it more than that?
In many countries, Empire has sprouted subsidiary
heads, some dangerous by-products—nationalism,
religious bigotry, fascism and, of course,
terrorism. All these march arm in arm with
the project of corporate globalisation.
Let me illustrate what I mean. India—the
world’s biggest democracy—is currently
at the forefront of the corporate globalisation
project. Its ‘market’ of one billion
people is being prised open by the WTO. Corporatisation
and privatisation are being welcomed by the
government and the Indian elite.
It is no coincidence that the Prime Minister,
the Home Minister, the Disinvestment Minister—the
men who signed the deal with Enron in India,
the men who are selling the country’s
infrastructure to corporate multinationals,
the men who want to privatise water, electricity,
oil, coal, steel, health, education and telecommunication—are
all members or admirers of the RSS, a right
wing, ultra-nationalist Hindu guild, which
has openly admired Hitler and his methods.
The Free Market Nation
The dismantling of democracy is proceeding
with the speed and efficiency of a Structural
Adjustment Programme. While the project of
corporate globalisation rips through people’s
lives in India, massive privatisation, and
labour ‘reforms’ are pushing people
off their land and out of their jobs. Hundreds
of impoverished farmers are committing suicide
by consuming pesticide. Reports of starvation
deaths are coming in from all over the country.
While the elite journeys to its imaginary
destination somewhere near the top of the
world, the dispossessed are spiralling downwards
into crime and chaos.
This climate of frustration and national disillusionment
is the perfect breeding ground, history tells
us, for fascism.
The two arms of the Indian government have
evolved the perfect pincer action. While one
arm is busy selling India off in chunks, the
other, to divert attention, is orchestrating
a howling, baying chorus of Hindu nationalism
and religious fascism. It is conducting nuclear
tests, rewriting history books, burning churches,
and demolishing mosques. Censorship, surveillance,
the suspension of civil liberties and human
rights, the definition of who is an Indian
citizen and who is not, particularly with
regard to religious minorities, is becoming
common practice now.
Last March, in the state of Gujarat, two thousand
Muslims were butchered in a state-sponsored
pogrom. Muslim women were specially targeted.
They were stripped, and gang-raped, before
being burned alive. Arsonists burned and looted
shops, homes, textiles mills and mosques.
More than a hundred and fifty thousand Muslims
were driven from their homes. The economic
base of the Muslim community has been devastated.
While Gujarat burned, the Indian Prime Minister
was on MTV promoting his new poems. In January
this year, the government that orchestrated
the killing was voted back into office with
a comfortable majority. Nobody has been punished
for the genocide. Narendra Modi, architect
of the pogrom, proud member of the RSS, has
embarked on his second term as the Chief Minister
of Gujarat. If he were Saddam Hussein, of
course each atrocity would have been on CNN.
But since he’s not—and since the
Indian ‘market’ is open to global
investors—the massacre is not even an
There are more than one hundred million Muslims
in India. A time bomb is ticking in our ancient
All this to say that it is a myth that the
free market breaks down national barriers.
The free market does not threaten national
sovereignty, it undermines democracy.
As the disparity between the rich and the
poor grows, the fight to corner resources
is intensifying. To push through their ‘sweetheart
deals,’ to corporatise the crops we
grow, the water we drink, the air we breathe,
and the dreams we dream, corporate globalisation
needs an international confederation of loyal,
corrupt, authoritarian governments in poorer
countries to push through unpopular reforms
and quell the mutinies.
Corporate Globalisation—or shall we
call it by its name?—Imperialism—needs
a press that pretends to be free. It needs
courts that pretend to dispense justice.
Meanwhile, the countries of the North harden
their borders and stockpile weapons of mass
destruction. After all they have to make sure
that it’s only money, goods, patents
and services that are globalised. Not the
free movement of people. Not a respect for
human rights. Not international treaties on
racial discrimination or chemical and nuclear
weapons or greenhouse gas emissions or climate
change, or—god forbid—justice.
So this – all this – is ‘empire.’
This loyal confederation, this obscene accumulation
of power, this greatly increased distance
between those who make the decisions and those
who have to suffer them.
Our fight, our goal, our vision of Another
World must be to eliminate that distance.
The Naked Empire
So how do we resist ‘Empire’?
The good news is that we’re not doing
too badly. There have been major victories.
Here in Latin America you have had so many—in
Bolivia, you have Cochabamba; in Peru, there
was the uprising in Arequipa; in Venezuela,
President Chavez is holding on, despite the
U.S. government’s best efforts.
And the world’s gaze is on the people
of Argentina, who are trying to refashion
a country from the ashes of the havoc wrought
by the IMF.
In India the movement against corporate globalisation
is gaining momentum and is poised to become
the only political force to counter religious
As for corporate globalisation’s glittering
ambassadors—Enron, Bechtel, WorldCom,
Arthur Anderson—where were they last
year, and where are they now?
And of course here in Brazil we must ask...
who was the president last year, and who is
Still, many of us have dark moments of hopelessness
and despair. We know that under the spreading
canopy of the War Against Terrorism, the men
in suits are hard at work.
While bombs rain down on us, and cruise missiles
skid across the skies, we know that contracts
are being signed, patents are being registered,
oil pipelines are being laid, natural resources
are being plundered, water is being privatised,
and George Bush goes to war against Iraq.
If we look at this conflict as a straightforward
eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between ‘Empire’
and those of us who are resisting it, it might
seem that we are losing.
But there is another way of looking at it.
We, all of us gathered here, have, each in
our own way, laid siege to ‘Empire.’
We may not have stopped it in its tracks—yet—but
we have stripped it down. We have made it
drop its mask. We have forced it into the
open. It now stands before us on the world’s
stage in all its brutish, iniquitous nakedness.
Empire may well go to war, but it’s
out in the open now—too ugly to behold
its own reflection. Too ugly even to rally
its own people. It won’t be long before
the majority of American people become our
Before September 11, 2001 America had a secret
history. Secret especially from its own people.
But now America’s secrets are history,
and its history is public knowledge. It’s
For example, killing people to save them from
dictatorship or ideological corruption is,
of course, an old U.S. government sport. Here
in Latin America, you know that better than
And while nobody doubts that Saddam Hussein
is a ruthless dictator, a murderer, we should
note that his worst excesses were supported
by the governments of the United States and
Great Britain. There’s no doubt that
Iraqis will be better off without him.
But, then, the whole world would be better
off without a certain Mr. Bush. In fact, he
is far more dangerous than Saddam Hussein.
So, should we bomb Bush out of the White House?
So, what can we do about the next war against
the next Iraq?
We can hone our memory, we can learn from
our history. We can continue to build public
opinion until it becomes a deafening roar.
We can turn the war on Iraq into a fishbowl
of the U.S. government’s excesses. We
can expose George Bush and Tony Blair—and
their allies—for the cowardly baby killers,
water poisoners, and pusillanimous long-distance
bombers that they are. We can re-invent civil
disobedience in a million different ways.
In other words, we can come up with a million
ways of becoming a collective pain in the
When George Bush says, “You’re
either with us, or you are with the terrorists,”
we can say “No thank you.” We
can let him know that the people of the world
do not need to choose between a Malevolent
Mickey Mouse and the Mad Mullahs.
Our strategy should be not only to confront
empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive
it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With
our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness,
our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness—and
our ability to tell our own stories. Stories
that are different from the ones we’re
being brainwashed to believe.
The corporate revolution will collapse if
we refuse to buy what they are selling—their
ideas, their version of history, their wars,
their weapons, their notion of inevitability.
Remember this: We be many and they be few.
They need us more than we need them. Another
world is not only possible, she is on her
way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
—Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 27, 2003
(Editor’s note: This speech was given
at the World Social Forum before the recent
war in Iraq, so some of it has been bypassed
by current events.)
Used with permission of Zmag <www.zmag.org>
Arundhati Roy is author of The God
of Small Things, for which she won the Booker
Prize. Before that she was an architect and
screenwriter. Born in Kerala, India, she is
also a well known social activist. In 2002
she was convicted of contempt of court by
the Supreme Court in New Delhi for accusing
the court of attempting to silence protests
against the Narmada Dam project, receiving
only a symbolic sentence of one day in prison.
This article was printed in New Renaissance,
Vol. 12, No. 1, issue 40, Summer, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Renaissance Universal,
all rights reserved. Posted on the web
on June 22, 2003.