Swans Commentary » swans.com November 2, 2009  



Orwell's Epiphany


by Michael Doliner





And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd -- seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.

—George Orwell in Shooting an Elephant


(Swans - November 2, 2009)   George Orwell, as a policeman in Burma in 1924, found that he was forced to shoot an elephant that had earlier run amok but, by the time he arrived, had already calmed down and was harmless. It was the expectations of the huge crowd (he estimated it at at least 2000 people) that forced him to shoot the elephant. "A sahib has got to act like a sahib," he comments. That he was forced to do what he did not want to do, that he had become a "puppet" the crowd manipulated, was, to Orwell, what marked imperialism as absurd and futile. He concludes, "I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool." Today no American would think of doing in Iraq what Orwell did in Burma -- saunter out in front of a large crowd armed only with an old gun and shoot an elephant essential to somebody's life. Someone would be sure to pop him off. Americans cannot administer the nether regions the way the British did. They have to ride around in heavily armed vehicles when they go on patrol.

Imperialism should not be considered as merely an extension of Empire building and therefore similar to the activities of the Roman Empire and Alexander the Great. Although modern empire building started earlier, imperialism really began in the 1870s and is marked by the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie. (1) These were people who believed and acted upon the idea that endless accumulation of wealth was life's purpose. But it is a mistake to think of this attitude as the expression of an innate psychology. It is an attitude that capitalism forces upon one. Anyone who has entered corporate life knows well that this sort of commitment is obligatory. Whatever you really think beforehand, you had better talk and act as if only getting ahead mattered. And indeed you had better believe it, for anyone faking it soon finds the door. Corporate officers are obliged to consider only increase in the corporate assets in making their decisions. All other human motives are illegal. Although the bourgeoisie had gained social ascendancy in the nineteenth century it wasn't until near its end that this ascendancy became political. When expansion outside the borders of the nation-state -- inevitably necessary -- required the use of force, it needed the state's violence. Hannah Arendt refers to J.A. Hobson's Imperialism in locating the real beginning of this activity in 1884.

From the start the imperialists came into conflict with the national institutions of the European states, for they proved unsuited for administering the Imperial domains. Arendt sketches the history of this conflict of parliaments with the imperialist party; that is, those who were actually out in India, Africa, and elsewhere. "National institutions resisted throughout the brutality and megalomania of imperialist aspirations, and the bourgeois attempts to use the state and its instruments of violence for its own economic purposes were always only half successful. This changed when the German bourgeoisie staked everything on the Hitler movement and aspired to rule with the help of the mob..." (2)

Given the need for eternal expansion, imperialism is an inevitable result of bourgeois megalomania, for the national territory, being finite, must inevitably limit the possibilities for expansion at some point. Also inevitably, this expansion will come into conflict with the interests of the body politic of the home country. For the techniques the imperialists must use to suppress the restless natives must violate the home country's laws and the openness, such as it is, of its political structure. A body politic exists because of the consent of its members, for its members are only those who can have a real political voice. Since the body politic could not expand into the imperialistically administered regions, the administration of these regions, not being consensual, violates the home country's political structure. To uphold their raison d'être, the parliaments of the nation-states tried to restrict the imperial barbarism. Those sent to administer these regions, knowing what brutality was required of their job, chaffed, and still chaff, at the restrictions the home country put on them. Later, when the parliaments had succumbed to the imperialists, they satisfy the need to justify this barbarism simply by throwing a blanket of fog over all political discourse.

Europe had a number of states that embarked upon the imperialist venture at more or less the same time. All had a problem with imperial administration, for the contradictions were there for all of them. "No nation-state could with a clear conscience ever try to conquer foreign peoples, since such a conscience comes only from the conviction of the conquering nation that it is imposing a superior law upon barbarians. The nation, however, conceived of its law as an outgrowth of a unique national substance which was not valid beyond its own people and the boundaries of its own territory." (3) Although the various states tried various techniques to administer the territories, none really worked very well. It was not hard for the natives to see through the exploitative nature of the domination. And the conquest by a nation-state inflamed the conquered people's national consciousness and rebellion. The French tried to solve the problem by actually incorporating the subject peoples into the French nation, with disastrous results. The English tried the technique of leaving most of the local institutions intact and governing, as it were, from above. But this gave the impression of a permanent sense of English superiority and still spurred, perhaps even more sharply, a national consciousness.

In the end the only way to rule the imperial regions was through tyranny. That required first the defeat of the national institutions in the home nation that always opposed the brutal measures of the Imperialists. The tyranny had to develop not only in the imperial domains, but in the nation-state as well. The Reagan revolution was a large victory for the imperialist powers. Bush, and his destruction of the Constitution, was even better. But the rhetoric of democracy and at least a little of the reality of the nation-state had to remain. The tug of war between "regulators" and "deregulators" is a good proxy for just how this battle is turning out. But in the end the imperialists, with even more gigantic resources, will win against an apolitical public. Since the imperialists had no real political interests other than to employ the state power for expansion of their wealth, they welcomed any political losses. The demise of the body politic was none of their affair unless it affected the bottom line. But, since tyranny in a nation-state makes no sense in terms of the state's commitments, it had to be disguised. The present wild confusion and utter political dishonesty is the result. Propagandists must present the nation-state's actions in terms of its interests in human dignity even though these are imperialist actions. The bizarre present media circus with its "humanitarian" wars, farcical attempts to set up democracies, and bouquet of plastic distractions is the outcome.

Arendt turns to Hobbes to show just what effect this bourgeois ethic made political can have. Hobbes works out in great detail what will happen to a world peopled entirely by bourgeois men; that is, men who operate purely on the principle of self-interest to secure endless expansion of their wealth. The logic is not that hard to follow. The totally self-interested man bands together with others for security, since any man is capable of killing another. But these communities are always provisional since it makes sense to change sides if you see another community that can keep you safer. Certainly, if your community loses a war, you would abandon it. Offshoring anyone? Patriotism is provisional, so the national sentiment that holds the state together crumbles under the pressure of imperialist logic, and only tyranny can hold it together. Since the army itself depends upon patriotism, the imperialist party must disguise its purposes if the army is to be effective.

Since infinite expansion is the goal of capitalism, imperialism is the inevitable outcome of capitalism. The capitalist will employ the state power for the expansion of his wealth. The more power he has the further he can expand. He will seek to expand state power in the same way as he expands his wealth. The objection to big government is really an objection to state resources being expended for other than imperialist aggrandizement. The expansion of state power must, of necessity, be unlimited. Just as he produces wealth for wealth's sake he also produces power for power's sake, endlessly.

Power, of course, means armies, navies, soldiers, police. One cannot simply hold such a force in readiness and never use it. Soldiers don't remain soldiers if they sit around the pool too long. Power must be used and will be used in any case, since, inevitably, with expansion, the different imperialist adventures of different nation-states will bump against one another in their obesity. The government, in the service of endless expansion of wealth, must become an engine for the endless expansion of its power. Since people control this power and therefore have an interest in expanding it, they too will want to expand it by using it and they will band together in a military-industrial complex, politically, a party of death. The endless expansion of power megalomania that goes along with the endless expansion of wealth megalomania leaves force, like wealth with no purpose other than to grow, so such force becomes purely destructive.

Just as the corporate CEO must by law consider only what will and what will not help to expand his enterprise, the general must consider only what will bring victory. The utter brutality of their actions is no concern of theirs. Ditto the laying waste of huge regions. Ditto the depletion of resources and the spewing out of wastes. The demise of the planet is really none of their affair. Megalomania requires both the bourgeois and his general to suppress -- or even better, lack -- all other human sentiments. The expressions of "remorse" bourgeois political leaders offer for "collateral damage" is so obviously cynical and hypocritical that it is a travesty. What could be more macabre than George W. Bush expressing a human sentiment? The frantic corporate lawyers who work 100 hours a week and the CEO who sleeps only 4 hours a night are stock figures in capitalism's burlesque. That women who have babies likely lose their careers goes without saying. Unspoken is the implication that "career" (capitalist) dedication leaves no room for anything else. Human beings are actually "human resources." Nothing matters but making money.

That imperialists torture and use hideous weapons that promise to continue to produce suffering long after the war is over no longer really surprises us. We understand and perhaps even participate in the megalomania that makes these horrors only a matter of course. Since capitalism, in its need to ever expand, sucks in every bit of human energy it can, all other human concerns just hinder it. Moral qualms just reveal those who have them as pussies. Even science, so useful for developing weapons, is an enemy if it threatens to slow or stop expansion. Capitalism's dishonest attempt to undermine climate science, and thus sacrifice the planet to their greed, is well known, but it is only one instance in a long list. Car companies, tobacco companies, and drug companies, to name only these, have notoriously worked to falsify science for their own profit. Capitalism opposes not only science, but any human interest if it hinders expansion. It sucks energy from education, the arts, family life, everything. It also, with its provisional loyalties, destroys every political structure, and, to hide all this, turns the discourse that might easily expose its destructive activities into blather.

The old problem, of how to administer the territories, remains. The United States, in a dandy position after WWII what with everybody else supine with exhaustion, seems to have hoped that military bases sprinkled around the world would keep puppet governments in line. Direct administration was unnecessary, and without it they could more easily maintain the benevolent façade the English in the end failed to sell. Local elites kept in power with military aid, mercenaries, and an "over the horizon" threat of American force would rule the nether regions. But it seems to be working less well now. War criminals like Henry Kissinger don't get around much any more. With all that money he can't go to Paris. The Rumsfelds of the world have to keep their heads down. With all the crooks who can't leave, America is looking more like a prison than a free country. American military force, no less deadly, is somehow less threatening, and the puppet governments can no longer hide what they are. When Saddam Hussein was willing to give up everything and the United States still attacked Iraq, it taught the natives that even complete acquiescence would not save them. Might as well fight. Now no one will give up even a nickel to American diplomacy. When the United States tries to use force it finds its soldiers exposed to IEDs, car bombs, and suicide bombers. Iraq collapsed when the American military entered, leaving shadowy groups to operate at will. As the U.S. spends billions to maintain its occupying army, the "insurgents" (guerrillas) pick off the soldiers with these cheap devices. Americans cannot, like Orwell, move about the administered countries without fear. They have withdrawn to bases, staying out of the cities, which the Status Of Forces Agreement the U.S. acquiesced to requires. Though they remain in the country, they influence their former puppets hardly at all. We need only look at Maliki in Iraq and Karzai in Afghanistan to see just how poorly the U.S. can control its own puppets today. All of Latin America is thumbing their noses at the U.S. Nothing will persuade the natives that the American occupation is anything but that. What passes for political discourse at home is such gibberish that it requires only Cindy Sheehan to ask "What are we fighting for?" to expose the entire thing as a sham. Of course, to be sure, no American notices, since the word-soup of the media has marinated everyone's brain.

So here is the situation. Capitalism, a dedication to infinite expansion, automatically leads to imperialism when it becomes political, as it must, and imperialism requires state power to expand in conjunction with capitalist wealth. This destroys the political structure of the nation-state along with much else including the planet's ability to support civilized life, dooming both the successful and the failed imperialist alike. One way or another, we have reached the end of imperialism. But it is not easy for the imperialist to give up his dreams, and the imperialists are not merely the super rich.

Of course, even on the home front the joke of public discourse is palpable. Most Americans want out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in spite of the parade of "experts" who incoherently try to convince them otherwise. Jon Stewart does not really need writers for the Daily Show any more: he simply plays straight man for clips from CNN. In spite of this barrage of ever more goofy government and official media discourse, people want out. But the opinions and desires of the public are ineffectual because the inexorable logic of imperialism has destroyed the body politic. That Obama, elected overwhelming as an antiwar candidate, is now about to escalate the war in Afghanistan shows, for anyone who still needs showing, that there is really little left of the national institutions that once were a brake on imperialist megalomania. Obama is a capitalist tool. Indeed one can look around in almost any direction to see further evidence that this is true.

Imperialism cannot continue, but the imperialists cannot admit defeat. They dream of manipulating their former puppets, unaware that the cut strings are showing. Their obligatory capitalist enthusiasm precludes any thought of failure. Team players have to be upbeat in meetings, and it is in meetings that they express their opinions. They drown out the child who points out the naked emperor.

Imperialists must expand. When they fail, they rage and obliterate the region. As long as megalomaniacal capitalists -- that is, those whose whole energy is dedicated to expansion -- continue to control policy, the world will edge towards world war and ecological catastrophe. With the human habitability of the planet almost (or perhaps already) gone, and with blind imperialism champing at the bit for its final death-dealing war, there is no longer time for trying to hold imperialism back with the nation's small regulatory victories. As long as the bourgeois ethos of infinite expansion reigns, imperialism will continue the destruction. The ever-growing crisis, which now threatens on almost every front, may eventually loom large enough for people to notice, but noticing and acting are not the same. The capitalist ideology is strong. Arendt describes how the ordinary person finds herself forced to embrace the capitalist ethos. Having been deprived of his political place the citizen's interests of necessity revolve around his individual life. But without any political associations he finds himself to be nothing more than an individual, one whose relationship to other individuals is Hobbesian. In such a state only self interest matters. Even the man in the street must act wholly from self interest. Even the homeless must become imperialists in their attitudes. The megalomaniacal drive for security leads, paradoxically, because of this forced individuation, to complete insecurity -- just what Americans, really quite secure, feel now. To uproot this capitalist ideology will require a revival of the body politic.

So, this is the skinny, Minnie. Organize or die.


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1.  The following draws extensively from Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, Harcourt Inc. 1979)  (back)

2.  Ibid p 124  (back)

3.  Ibid pp 126-7  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Swans -- ISSN:  1554-4915
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Published November 2, 2009