Public Power in the Age of Empire: Insights from Arundhati Roy

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Ten years ago I read a book by India’s Arundhati Roy. Her ideas resonated with me and this was my modest attempt to comment on a few of the points she makes.

Ms. Roy’s book Public Power in the Age of Empire begins by noting that those who run our country claim to be on our side but in reality do not act in our best interests. Nor does our government care about what we think as long as we remain placid and keep re-electing those in power.

“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.”

This stance of keeping the people manipulated into obeisance while the rich get richer is not uniquely American. I remember when oil was discovered off the coast of Mexico and it appeared that our neighbors south of the border were going to be rich, rich, rich. But while living there for a year in 1981 it was impossible not to notice the squalor the poor experienced in the big cities, the sprawling slums blanketing hillsides.

Simultaneously, the presidents of the ruling PRI and their cronies suckled the golden teats of this oil flow so as to leave absolutely nothing changed except the size of their Swiss bank accounts. All democratically elected hoodlums.

When we were raising our children, my wife once read a book on parenting that noted that parents need to approach their children with an attitude that says, “I’m on your side.” The upshot of this is that the kids feel affirmed and listened to. The children are not always right, but there is a relationship that is healthy and which has ontological value.

Arundhati Roy’s premise is that government’s do not have this attitude when it comes to their poor. She cites dam projects which caused massive destruction and forced evacuations of the poor in India and elsewhere, of the massive destruction of homes in beautification projects for Olympic-sized entertainment complexes, and a whole catalogue of other indignities. And who is speaking on behalf of these people who have no voice in the modern world? These are part of our human family.

Even worse is the death and destruction wrought by war. The Bomb did not get dropped on troops. It leveled a city which was just like any city anywhere made up of people who went to work like you and I go to work, with schools, children, mothers, grandmothers… The destruction of the World Trade Center was not a military attack on a military target. The catalog of horrors cited by Paul Thomas Chamberlin in his Cold War Killing Fields reveals a pattern of indifference to the common people and the poor. Political powers make decisions, innocent people with no say in those decisions are killed, wounded, maimed.

But wars aren’t the only form of violence against the world’s poor. The World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions are writing economic policies and legislation that has no concern for the consequences wrought. According to Roy, “With a deadly combination of arrogance and ruthlessness, they take their sledgehammers to fragile, interdependent, historically complex societies, and devastate them.”

Because the situations are complex, Americans don’t understand what is really going on in the world. When people like Roy begin to raise their voices and get shrill enough to be heard, it frightens us… not the content of what these people say, but the megaphones they use to say it. As Roy says, the government uses this fear strengthen its power, like a mother hen drawing her little chicks up under her wing. “Yes, it is scary out there, little chickies,” our leaders say, “so get up close to me here. I will protect you from the big bad wolves.”

This woman from India has done her homework. I am not sure what her prescriptions are for solution or if I line up with them entirely but I do believe she is speaking for a large contingent of humanity who at this point in time have no power, and no voice.

If interested in getting a taste of these challenging ideas, read Public Power in the Age of Empire here

Originally published at

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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