Are ‘democracies’ still democratic? Are governments accountable to the people who elect them? These are some of the questions that Arundhati Roy asks in her brief but insightful speech (this little book is the transcription, and can also be found free online). We live in an Age of Empire, she argues, characterised by economic colonialism and the repression of resistance.
Using Indian and American governments as her main examples, Roy discusses the ways in which governments can manipulate the people they’re supposed to serve, and how elections have the illusion of ideological choice. While people might get the governments they vote for they might not get the governments they want. Or need. In third world countries, the national agenda is often not dictated by the needs of the people, but by the demands of foreign capital and freemarket capitalism which are given the label of ‘reform’. However, these ‘reforms’ lead to mass unemployment and poverty. Faced with the threat of being crippled by capital flight, governments continue to facilitate the economic exploitation of their countries. Consequently, Roy says, it is impossible for governments to achieve radical change. It is only the public that can do so.
In the second half she looks at some of the dangers that resistance movements face, such as their relationship with the mass media and the use of NGOs to defuse political resistance. What I found especially powerful was her argument that public power in the age of Empire can be forced to resort to terrorism (which here is loosely defined as violent resistance) as a direct consequence of governments’ merciless crackdown on resistance in all forms. If governments are not open to change through non-violent resistance, then they are in fact endorsing violence as the only choice of action for an oppressed and exploited public.
Overall I found this to be a very useful, memorable book that should be easy for the most readers to understand. In a very few pages it provides an essential critical perspective with which to view contemporary global politics, particularly the depiction of humanitarian struggles by the media and political authorities. Even if you don’t agree with everything Roy says, this essay does you the valuable service of dissuading you from swallowing information whole and encouraging you to learn more and think more carefully and critically about the way in which countries and global powers are treating human beings.