Friday, January 27, 2012
Envisioning That Better Future -- Eight: The End of Empire
The Imperial route is widely seen as the natural outcome of all serious civilized human endeavor. The Empire, under this viewpoint, is not just natural, it is necessary. You cannot have civilization without it. Why just look at Europe after Rome fell. Obvious, isn't it? No civilization there again until Leonardo and Michelangelo. A thousand years of Darkness and Despair.
Except there was no pan-European empire in Leonardo's day or Michelangelo's time. In their Italy, there was no unified government; there was instead a plethora of more or less independent city-states many of which endured until the middle of the 19th Century.
Rome began as a quasi-independent city-state, as did Athens long before it. In fact, both are said to have originated as collections of neighboring hamlets that formed themselves into a political unit with no ambitions, supposedly, beyond common defense against marauders and pirates.
Both went through democratic periods, periods of tyranny, periods of prosperity, periods of suffering and collapse, and both eventually expanded their reach and rule far beyond their civic boundaries. Both were cruel masters to Natives under sway of their colonial outposts. Both faced frequent rebellion on the Peripheries of their empires; often enough, they faced rebellion right at home.
Observers at the time celebrated their Empires while some denounced and decried them. To Imperialist believers, Empire is necessary for there to even be civilization; to skeptics, Empire saps and destroys civilization because of its overwhelming human and financial costs.
The Imperial overreach of Athens was subsumed by the overreach of the Macedonians subsequent to the subjugation of Athens to Sparta. The center did not hold. But then, what of Sparta? Athens endures; Sparta is gone with the wind, as if it never was, though its legend lives on. The Macedonian empire of Alexander fragmented even before it was fully formed, and the semi-nations that took its place were themselves absorbed and acquired by Rome in the by and bye.
Nothing is forever. And no ruler is ever certain of his throne.
The American experience is of course derived in part from ideas that originated in Athens and Rome, and the impulse to Empire has been part and parcel of the American Dream since the beginning. While the foundation of the nation may have been in rebellion against the British Imperial authority, the Imperial impulse itself was maintained upon independence and it was strengthened with the establishment of the Constitution. Put another way, Empire is built in to the formulation of the State itself.
One cannot imagine a non-expansionist United States in the 19th Century. Expansion on the model of Empire was a necessity for survival. When domestic expansion ceased with the "closure of the frontier" in 1890, it was immediately picked up and renewed through overseas expansion and Imperial conquest, starting with Hawaii.
Throughout the early 20th Century, the United States not only ruled its domestic continental Empire, it had far-flung Imperial outposts in the Pacific and Caribbean that it had seized from the decadent Spanish Empire, and it ruled most of Latin America through economic sway, Native proxies, and sometimes directly through military invasion and martial law.
World War I and World War II had the consequence of breaking up the western empires, but in the process, those global conflicts gave rise to three remarkable and in some ways unprecedented domestic empires: the Soviet Union, the Republic of India and the People's Republic of China.
The European imperial outposts were jettisoned one by one and in batches, as Asia and Africa were "decolonized" and independence and self-determination was proclaimed and enshrined everywhere. Well. Sort of.
After a protracted and devastating civil war, at least partially engineered by outside forces including American, the Soviet Union fell heir to nearly the entirety of the former Russian Empire. Well, how about that. The current rump Russian Federation is a mere flickering shadow of what the Tsars and the Commissars had once ruled.
Independent India likewise emerged from a civil war that ensured the separation of Pakistan from India, and cobbled together the numerous semi-autonomous petty kingdoms of British India into a single Republic, a domestic Empire that even the mighty Brits had been unable to forge (or more likely had not wanted to see emerge.)
At the conclusion of China's long and bloody civil war, the Maoists took control of the entire domestic continental empire of China's glorious past; they also established a rigid and successful independence from alien and outside rule by anyone, including their ever-so-helpful Soviet pals.
Possibly to compensate for the loss of so much overseas territory, Western Europeans concentrated on the establishment of some sort of European continental union or domestic Empire, which is still an elusive goal. Perhaps it's not even a desirable one any more given the current financial pickle the Europeans find themselves in.
As part of that financial pickle that effects not just Europe but practically everywhere, we are witness to the rise of transnational corporate enterprises acting independently of governments, whether local, regional, national or international. Some of these enterprises are far wealthier than many nations, and they can operate with apparent impunity wherever and however they want. They capture governments -- as they have captured our own -- and operate them for their own parasitical interests in defiance of law and the People.
This parasitical and piratical practice by corporate entities roaming the globe is not entirely new, for much the same ethic of parasitism and quasi-independent extractive behavior by corporate entities was how many of the modern European empires were established in the first place. The corporations went in first and seized what they wanted; rule from the palace and throne came after.
The People are seemingly powerless before the onslaught of Empire, whether brought through military or economic conquest or through genocide and extermination.
But Empire, under any guise, should not be seen as either the promoter or savior of "civilization." For it does nothing of the kind. Civilization may or may not survive under Imperial rule, but it will definitely be altered by it, often not for the better.
In envisioning a better future, many are envisioning a future without Empire. It's natural but not easy to do it.
First thing is the recognition of Empire and its strengths and weaknesses, its durability as well as its fragility. There is a widespread myth running around on the internet and in academic circles that proposes that we are witness to the End of the American Empire which is alleged to be crumbling all around us, as it has been doing for many years. I argue this is not at all the case. The American Empire is doing fine; what we are witnessing and in the midst of is the End of the Republic, actually a much more subtle "ending" -- because the political forms and rituals of the Republic will continue indefinitely, but they will have no meaning. At best, they will be entertainment -- much as the current crop of Republican candidates for the presidential nomination are being marketed as entertainment today. At worst, they'll be empty and cynical rituals masking what's really going on, such as takes place in Congress each and every day.
The Empire, on the other hand, is going great guns (quite literally). Its imposition has been refined to such a point that it's almost automatic now. Imperial sway -- in concert with or under the control of -- transnational privateers is now a matter of remote targeting and liquidation according to parameters and protocols that most Americans (let alone their victims) know nothing of, who are in many cases not even aware they exist. Empire no longer requires invading armies and physical occupations of foreign lands.
The Libyan Thing might be instructive. There was no "invasion," for example, though many observers and commentators speak of what happened there as if there had been a physical, military invasion by Imperial Stormtroops, etc. It didn't happen, and it isn't happening now. There is no occupying force, either. There was Imperial intervention and the aerial bombardment of "forces" (let's understand that both the rebels and the Gaddafi forces -- as well as non-combatant civilians -- were subject to arbitrary Death From Above; that's just how these things are done these days) was only the most overt aspect of it. There was a whole menu of more covert Imperial interventions involved, from the relentless anti-Gaddafi propaganda campaign to international murder squads, financial and economic hits, and domestic terrorism and sabotage.
There's much Imperial chest puffing and strutting about over the success of the Libyan campaign, but it took far longer than it was supposed to, and obviously it was beset with lousy intelligence from the get go, as apparently the Imperial sponsors of the aktion had -- and perhaps still have -- no idea who among the fractious Natives they are "supporting." From the evidence, they are actually supporting none of them. Now that the nation of Libya has been successfully liquidated -- that, after all, was the point of the exercise -- the various corporate interests who sponsored the Imperial intervention are picking over the bones, with, you will note, the complicity of some of the Libyans, but by no means all of them. The Libyans may or may not continue their civil war, but the point of this exercise was to strip them of a national consciousness and of assets, and that has been accomplished rather spectacularly. And it was done without a single uniformed Imperial troop on the ground. (Set aside the murder squads for now.) Well, how about that.
The lesson for the Imperialists was that this sort of thing WORKS. And they will do it again.
A nation destroyed, a People in chaos, assets stripped, defenses neutralized, leaders exterminated. No invasion and no colonial outposts necessary. That is how the Empire will be carried forth. By comparison, the Iraq Thing seems primitive and barbaric -- and in retrospect completely unnecessary.
We are witness to the development of a New Imperialism that doesn't require the kinds of physical force that even a few years ago were considered essential for projection of power. Now, most of what's necessary can be done remotely or from overhead, by a relatively few dedicated and determined individuals with a mission and access to technology.
Once we realize that that is what the Empire means now -- and that it is doing just fine, better than ever -- and that it is the Republic that is being collapsed deliberately and with much malice aforethought, we'll begin to have a better idea how to proceed.
The OccupyTVNY interview with Lawrence Lessig and Chris Hedges I posted the other day can help us to focus on how truly out of touch some of even our most insightful elites tend to be. Lessig is, as I say, a nice man, but he still believes that some of the Republic's attributes are functional, even as he acknowledges the Republic has essentially been extinguished. So he advocates an Article V Constitutional Convention in response, as if it were even conceivable at this point. An Article V Convention five -- or ten -- years ago might have had some merit (I was an advocate for a while) but not now. It's too late for that. Not only is the Federal Government captive to its owners and sponsors, so are state governments (did one not pay attention to the 2010 "elections" at all?) and more and more, so are local governments. The People have been essentially and successfully shut out of their government at every level. Where there might have been support in State Legislatures for an Article V Convention (once it was explained by the right people) years ago, now there would only be a blank stare. It's too late, Larry.
Hedges understands this stark fact, and he seems to understand that none of the mechanisms of the Republic actually work on behalf of the People any more, nor can they be made to. That part of our history is over and done. A captured government does not respond to the People because it does not have to.
So what does he recommend? "Civil disobedience" -- in order to do what? Apparently to get the attention of the Rulership, and force them to accommodate the People's Interests. He witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Empire, after all, and the Revolutions that precipitated it. Surely if babushkas and the rebels assembling in the square and banging on their pots and pans could do it in the face of the implacable Soviet system, we more innovative and creative sorts can do likewise.
Yes, well, I thought that too. Years ago, I think we might have done it, but it didn't happen. There was no assembly, there were no babushkas, there was no banging on pots and pans, and there were no rebels where and when it might have made a difference.
Now it's really too late for even that to make a dent in the Imperial armor.
What to do now?
Hedges helpfully points out that in addition to civil disobedience, resisters also have to create and maintain parallel institutions and social structures that serve the People's interests in stark contrast to the failed and captured institutions of the Establishment that serve only the interests of the Mighty Few.
This parallelism is fundamental. Institutional parallelism is a characteristic of all successful separatist and revolutionary movements (and I might add it has also been characteristic of communities suffering under segregationist policies, more and more of which seem to be reinstituted day by day as more and more are ejected from the mainstream of society, and the Security State further and further encages and restricts the remainder.)
The Occupy Movement has established and maintained parallel institutions from its beginning, from communal feeding stations to People's Libraries to outreach and social service programs and more. These aspects are integral to the Movment and the Revolution at its core. As far as I know, all active Occupations utilize as much institutional parallelism as they are able. I have referred many times to the importance and necessity of the demonstration as the keystone of the success of the Movement. By providing alternatives to the failed systems of rule we are under, the Movement ensures its perpetuation.
But what of the Empire? Do we ever get free of it? Perhaps so, perhaps not. The End of Empire means the end of Imperial control in our mind's eye and of our actions and beliefs first and foremost. End that control, and whether or not a political empire continues doesn't matter. The more pressing issue of economic imperialism, which hamstrings everything else that people hope or do, though not so much what they believe, is a much tougher nut to crack (ask the Africans who saw their one hope in Libya demolished before their very eyes).
But even the ropes and strangulation of economic terrorism and imperialism can be undone, through non-cooperation among other means. Ultimately, it appears that the greed and stupidity of those who rule through economic terrorism and imperialism bring the superstructure down sooner or later, these days sooner if events in Europe are any guide.
Well, that's why we need those parallel institutions!
Yea, verily, the End Is Nigh, but it may not be quite what we anticipated.
And in case it wasn't clear, Mars is not the answer... ;-D