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Book Review: An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire by Arundhati Roy

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With The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Arundhati Roy proved that she could write nonfiction as well as fiction. Hell, that’s an understatement – the book was a brilliant collection of polished essays, in which she displayed her trademark intellectual rants and lucid reasoning. And with this second collection of essays, she goes one step further.

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire consists of 14 well constructed, passionate articles written between June 2002 and November 2004 —  some of which were delivered as speeches while others were published in newspapers — in which Roy deconstructs the concepts of empire, neoliberal capitalism, corporate globalization, and state terrorism with a degree of both passion and erudition that is truly astounding.

“Ahimsa” deals with the struggle of the Narmada Bachao Andolan to make its voice heard in India’s policy deciding bodies. In this world that is increasingly fixated on terrorism and other movements of violent resistance, it is increasingly difficult for the votaries of non-violence to be heard. She notes that “Any government’s condemnation of terror is credible only if it shows itself to be responsive to persistent, closely argued, non violent dissent”.


What Roy fears is that people will be forced to abandon modes of non violent resistance and commit violence in order to grab headlines in today’s "free media". Should such a thing come to pass, it would be a veritable deathblow to the theory of ahimsa that Mahatma Gandhi propounded and executed to great effect during the struggle for independence against British rule.

Roy says in “Come September” that nationalism was the cause of genocides in the 20th century. Like a surgeon wielding a scalpel, she deftly shreds our most sacred doctrines. "Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead." She enumerates the innumerable crimes committed by the United States government against humanity right from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the penchant for engineering coups and regime changes throughout South America, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and finally the staunch support to Israel in order to prevent an equitable solution to the issue of Palestine issue – all under the excuse of "championing the cause of freedom"!

Arundhati Roy accurately points out that the real reason for the war against Iraq is to grab control of its oil resources. After an incisive analysis of the corporate globalization project and its end results, she concludes that just like Soviet–style communism, the American style market capitalism is doomed to failure – because it allowed too few people [“a handful of bankers and CEOs whom nobody elected”] to usurp too much power.

“The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky” is Arundhati’s tribute to one of the world’s greatest and most radical intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, who showed us that nothing is what it seems to be in the free world. He showed us how phrases like "free speech", the "free market" and the "free world" have little, if anything, to do with freedom. And he analysed the penchant of the United States to commit crimes against humanity in the name of "justice", in the name of "righteousness", in the name of "freedom". Chomsky brought out the grisly truth behind the American Dream and the American Way of Life. The U.S.A. has successfully rewritten its grisly history in the massacre of millions of native Americans, and the kidnapping and enslaving of millions of Africans. And yet, it is amazing that Americans believe that theirs is a peaceful nation, a nation built on fundamental values!

The sheer amount of research and analysis Chomsky did on the American invasion of IndoChina [Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia] in his book For Reasons of State is astounding. Arundhati praises Chomsky for revealing the “pitiless heart of the American war machine, completely isolated from the realities of war, blinded by ideology and willing to annihilate millions of human beings, civilians, soldiers, women, children, villages, whole cities, whole ecosystems- with scientifically honed methods of brutality”. The unsaid inference is that the United States has learnt nothing from its misadventure in Vietnam – and continues to make mistakes in Iraq, at the cost of millions of innocent Iraqi lives.

In her speech at the World Social Forum 2003 titled “Confronting Empire”, Arundhati Roy identifies the many arms of the monster called the New American Empire – the U.S. government, organizations like the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, and the multinational corporations. Using India as an example, she elucidates how dangerous byproducts like jingoistic nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism, and terrorism are created by the corporate globalization project. Thus, empire is nothing but a “loyal confederation, this obscene accumulation of power, this greatly increased distance between those who make the decisions and those who have to suffer them”.

Hence, if we are to tackle the spectre of Empire effectively, we must be prepared to lay siege to it. Roy says that America’s ugly past is out in the open; hence, this is the moment to convince the American public to rise up in defiance. As she concludes, “Remember this: we be many and they be few. They need us more than we do.”

“Peace is War” deals with the importance of the "free media" in the corporate globalization project. Roy describes how neoliberal capitalists have managed to subvert democracy – by infiltrating the judiciary, the press and the parliament, and moulding them to their purpose. As she says, “Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest bidder”. Roy points out that six major companies own America’s main media outlets, a disconcerting fact; this is why the American mainstream media does not critically examine the reasons for invading Iraq: a majority of the U.S. corporate media is owned and managed by the same interests.

She commends the efforts of New Media in showing what Old Media really is – an elaborate boardroom bulletin that reports and analyses the concerns of powerful people. The mainstream media practice “crisis reportage”, but Roy challenges journalists in New Media to become “peace correspondents instead of war correspondents,” and expose the “policies and processes that make ordinary things… such a distant dream for ordinary people”.

In An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Roy depicts the brutal barbaric destruction of a civilization by the American army. Agreed, Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but the fact is that the American and British governments supported him during his military excesses, against Iran and during the extermination of Kurds. It was only when he invaded Kuwait that he turned into a liability – a dog who wouldn’t obey his master anymore. And so, he deserved to be killed. The enormous level of double standards that the United States committed during the war is appalling. Bombing civilian areas is just one example. Western ‘embedded’ journalists are called heroes for doing their duty from the frontlines of war but Iraqi viewpoints were denounced. In fact, the Allies even bombed the Iraqi television station.

And the most ironic thing is – while the American taxpayers end up footing the spiralling war costs, the MNC friends of Bush, Cheney et al, gain plump contracts for the "reconstruction" of Iraq. The American Empire is “a superpower’s self destructive impulse towards supremacy, global hegemony.” Roy commends those Americans who have opposed the war as the "true heroes", not the soldiers fighting in Iraq.

In “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy”, a talk originally in New York City, Roy suggests that some of her listeners might think it “bad manners” for an Indian citizen to come to New York to criticize the U.S. government, but “when a country ceases to be merely a country and becomes an empire, then the scale of operations changes dramatically. So may I clarify that tonight I speak as a subject of the American empire? I speak as a slave who presumes to criticize her king”. In snappy, provocative prose, Roy argues that democracy “has become Empire’s euphemism for neo-liberal capitalism” and gives numerous examples from India, South Africa and the United States itself! She urges Americans to engage in civil disobedience in resistance to the war in Iraq because “the only institution more powerful than the U.S. government is American civil society.”

“When the Saints Go Marching Out” was first broadcast on the BBC and reflects on what has happened in the lands of Martin Luther King, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Nelson Mandela after their times have passed. These three public figures were the representatives of three different struggles, the only common feature being the reliance on the mode of non-violent resistance. Yet, in today’s India, religious fundamentalism is on the rise; South Africa is still festering with the pre-apartheid problems of extreme economic and social disparity; the United States has lost all manner of legitimate authority by the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq – more importantly, the blacks, for whom Martin Luther King devoted his life, make up nearly one fifth of America’s armed forces and nearly one third of the U.S. army (though they account for only 12% of America’s population) by way of the poverty draft. Roy appeals to black Americans to follow the teachings of King and to take to the streets in protest of the war in Iraq.

In a talk held at Raipur in October 2003, Arundhati Roy gave a tribute “In Memory of Shankar Guha Niyogi” to the leader of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, who passed away twelve years earlier. Roy lauds him for defending people’s rights, whenever they have been in danger. Shankar Guha Niyogi launched the CMM in order to fight for the rights of workers at a time when the Indian government was busy undermining labour laws. She praises the CMM for its numerous positive contributions to society, like building Shaheed Hospital for the poor and starting several schools to educate the children of the workers. Hence, Roy considers him to be a pioneer in the struggle against the forces of neo-imperialism.

“Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?” deals with the contours and the elements of what Arundhati refers to as "New Imperialism". Unless countries surrender their resources willingly to the corpoates, either civil unrest will be fomented, or war will be waged. Roy explains the concept of New Racism, which is the cornerstone of New Imperialism, wonderfully using the allegory of the ‘pardoned turkey’ during Thanksgiving: “A few carefully bred turkeys-the local elites of various countries … wealthy immigrants, investment bankers … some singers, some writers- are given absolution… The remaining millions lose their jobs, are evicted from their homes…”

Another instrument of New Imperialism is New Genocide which is facilitated by economic sanctions – the most notable case being Iraq, where more than half a million children have died during the last decade of sanctions. Since the Empire is so powerful, it is necessary that "local resistance movements should make international alliances in order to inflict real damage and force radical change”. She urges the WSF to lead the charge against the American Empire by rallies, non cooperation and economic boycotts.

Arundhati Roy explores behind India’s glittering facade and uncovers some bitter truths in her article “How Deep Shall We Dig?” Some of the numerous problems facing us are terrorism in Kashmir and the Northeast, the rise of religious fundamentalism, POTA, targeting of minorities, incidents of starving or malnutrition. It is increasingly difficult for people to confront their own government. As Roy remarks, “The space for non violent civil disobedience has atrophied. After struggling for several years, several non violent peoples’ disobedience movements have come up against a wall and feel, quite rightly, the need to change direction.” Since the poor and the minorities are the most affected by the dual assault of communal fascism and neoliberalism, she urges them to take the lead in opposing the growing influence of Empire in India.

“The Road to Harsud” is Roy’s blistering take on the contentious topic of Big Dams and the struggle by the poor people who haven’t been rehabilitated as yet, to make themselves heard. Harsud is a town in Madhya Pradesh which is slated to be submerged by the reservoir of Narmada Sagar Dam. What use is a dam if the drawbacks outweigh the potential benefits? Roy says that the dam will submerge more land than it will ever irrigate, will produce power that is even costlier than Enron, and will destroy a vast reservoir of biodiversity, wildlife, and medicinal plants. And yet, the government of Madhya Pradesh relentlessly plows ahead with its disastrous plan and in the process, has rendered more than 30,000 families homeless. And worst of all, in spite of repeated assurances by the government, the displaced people have not yet received adequate rehabilitative measures.

Roy analyses the power ordinary people like us wield in today’s world in her essay “Public Power in the Age of Empire”. The world today is a deeply skewed reality. She says that both terrorism and the war on terror share the same excruciating logic- they make ordinary citizens pay for the actions of their government. And eventually, Roy concludes that “radical change cannot and will not be negotiated by governments; it can only be enforced by the people. By the public. A public who can link hands across national borders.” If we are to successfully confront the Empire, then we have to channel our energies into "concrete action". Arundhati speaks in detail about three dangers that threaten resistance movements across the world – the meeting point between mass movements and the mass media, the dangers of NGO-isation of resistance, and the confrontation between resistance movements and repressive states.

“Peace and the New Corporate Liberation Theology” was a speech first delivered in Sydney on the occasion of Arundhati Roy winning the 2004 Sydney Peace Prize. She says that war in Iraq is a sign of things to come – a logical conclusion to the corporate globalization project. History, it seems, has turned full circle with the return of imperialism like a phoenix from the ashes. The corporate-military cabal has been busy at work, dispensing its unique brand of "justice" and "freedom" to the world at large. Roy concludes by saying that it is our duty to join the ‘war against Empire’ now or it will be too late.

In conclusion, although the essays deal with various movements in different countries (the U.S., India, and South Africa, to name a few of the prominent examples Roy cites) the common chord running through each one is empire, which Roy defines as “a superpower’s self-destructive impulse toward supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony.” Arundhati Roy draws parallels between various resistance movements and with her lucid analysis, she succeeds in elucidating the forces that work against ordinary people everywhere.

But she also illustrates the great strength those ordinary people can muster if they can cooperate in opposing, for example, the building of a dam that will wipe out the homes and livelihoods of thousands of people. Despite its title, this book is not a guide to empire, rather it is a call to arms. Roy, thus, motivates those who may already be passively critical of U.S. policies to join the activists out in the streets. “History is giving you the chance,” she writes. “Seize the time.” And so we should. Before its too late. Before all that we treasure in this world and stand for is lost.

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About kanjisheik

  • ron

    Americans face several new, unique problems of empire with the rise of Islamic terrorism around the world directed primarily at American, Israel and UK interests.

    Review “Consider the Terrorist Risk to US Markets” and you’ll understand the American Empire risk to American financial markets.

    From the free, online book, “
    The Swiss Preserve Solution

  • Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Nice work!

  • kanjisheik

    Thanks, Natalie! I would be glad if you would credit the article as follows:


  • Donald H. Veach

    At your suggestion I did review “Consider the Terrorist Risk to US Markets”, however, I think that your comment and the article really miss the point. The proximate cause of “the rise of Islamic terrorism” is the US suppport of Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians. The seoondary and somewhat realted cause is the US support of oppressive Arab regimes. “Chickens come home to roost” Arundhati Roy is magnificent.

  • kanjisheik

    True, Donald, i feel the same about the article mentioned by ron. And Arundhati Roy just rocks! With her oodles of passion and attitude, she is certainly one activist to watch out for. :~)