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Empires of Consumption

With empires on the move again, Alison Caddick looks at our prospects for the future.

We sit in a pocket of blissful Western ignorance, in little Australia, grown even smaller in the Howard years. It’s home, far from the consequences of war in Georgia, the fate of Iran, the oppression of the Muslim peoples of western China. We watch our plasma screens (made in China, as Ned Rossiter reminds us in this issue), perceiving the world as an extension of our own needs and desires. Sport, our source of national pride. (Wasn’t it wonderful that a girl from a single parent background had the go to win Gold?) China, often enough, a thinly veiled (racist) joke. (Did you see Kochie and Sonia doing slant-eye jokes on Channel 7’s ‘Yum Cha’?)

Just as the reporters in our daily press can’t get their heads around Germaine Greer’s argument that the collapse of culture means the bleakest kind of personal and social devastation, so morally serious discussion of any issue is extremely hard to find in Australian public discourse. John Martin ponders this great lack in the Australian psyche in the first essay in this issue of Arena Magazine in relation to Aboriginal connection to country. The national unwillingness to enter into other worlds, to feel and see them from the inside, has particularly Australian determinants. But history and geography grant us leave of our better senses. Martin says that Australians have no taste for tragedy, which is a shocking indictment.

In fact we settle for received views of the world and accept inferior status, notwithstanding our occasional anti- Americanism and on-tap nationalism. But as an outpost of what Empire exactly are we the wide-eyed underling?

Empires everywhere, it seems, are on the move again. It may not be wise to disavow for much longer knowledge of how that big old world works. Georgia and Iran may be much closer than we think. And it’s probably not a good idea to make slant-eye jokes about our northern neighbour. This is not to even raise the morally serious questions of the fate of peoples beyond our ken, how they perceive the world, or against what claims or threats they pose their own, but merely to suggest that it may also be in our interest to ask such questions.

Of course there is a complication here. There are questions to ask of and about empires other than the one we find ourselves in, as well as such questions about the peoples hidden from view within them (the Chinese, on the one hand, and the colonised peoples of Tibet and Uighur, on the other). Empire by its nature hides difference from the outside world, even if it doesn’t always kill it. In fact some empires have been known to let flourish a great variety of cultures, even for long periods of time, and this has to remain a possible intermediate goal in some situations given geopolitical realpolitik, where the stakes can be very high indeed in ethnic/cultural and humanitarian terms.

A central problem in all this is that the modern colonising attitude, inextricably guided by hubristic notions of progress and supremacist nationalism, underwrites the fate of minorities as primitive peoples who must be advanced. This is the same problem whether you are a supremacist American (Australian), Chinese or Russian. Despite our cultural differences, we all have in common a modernity of assumptions, and it is these, first and foremost, that are dangerous and need first and foremost to be challenged.

Superpower, or imperial, power plays come a close second in terms of danger, and actually come first if we expand our concerns away from oppressed minorities to the flow-on effects for entire regions and globally. Strategic destabilisation has long been an American art form, and it is clear in the cases of both Tibet and Georgia that American hands are not clean. Unless of course, you simply believe in the liberal democratic mission of the United States to bring democracy into dark places; and you have the kind of mind that does not baulk at the colossal dissonance of arguments for sovereignty in some places (Georgia — Bush denounces Russian denial of Georgian sovereignty) and not in others (Iraq — sovereignty is relative).

There is no doubt that Russian Empire is on the move. Who can doubt its own historical inclination to empire, and to brutal repression under Putin (think of Grozny); but who, too, could doubt that American meddling in Georgia and elsewhere within the old Soviet sphere of influence has not pushed Russia into action, as premeditated as it seems likely to have been. With Georgia launching its offensive against South Ossetia while Putin was in Beijing, and a visit by Condoleezza Rice to Tbilisi only days before fighting began, we have to understand that not only friendship between ‘like democracies’ has been a factor in US aid to Tbilisi, but that a set of more broad-ranging plans are also in action. Interestingly, the intervention, and Russian counter, has had fabulous consequences for American influence in Poland and Slovakia, with Poland finally signing up — days after the Russian retort — to have US ‘missile defences’, which is to say forward missile launching pads, erected on its soil. Ostensibly for the protection of Europe against Iranian missiles, the Polish government has now made it conditional that the missiles face Russia — which is what the Russians of course believed their primary purpose to be all along.

Humiliation at the hands of the West is, interestingly, cited as motive for both Chinese and Russian muscle-flexing in the present period. Historical precedents suggest the dangers of national humiliation for international affairs (and minority peoples), but the circumstances today are hardly comparable with anything in the past. How ordinary Chinese people interviewed for Olympics coverage stated again and again that this was China’s chance to overcome a hundred years of humiliation suggests a successful campaign to heighten grossly nationalistic (not patriotic) feeling. There is a population there willing to die for its (media-generated?) imagined community. In the Russian context, the same refrain seems a slim cover for its more immediate need to bolster its borders against an encircling NATO (now with missiles facing Moscow) and to ensure control of the carriage of energy resources, the basis of Russia’s growing hold over Europe and desire to keep links to the Middle East open. (Consult a map to see just how close these protagonists are to vital oil, gas and shipping routes, and the Middle East generally.)

As the empires face off, the primary concern is energy: for access to it for production and more generally ‘growth’; for the power and dollars associated with its sale and transmission; for the commodities to which it is dedicated. Russia is resource rich, and may be even more so as the polar ice thaws; China is a powerhouse of production for an envious world’s insatiable consumption without adequate power sources of its own; American empire is increasingly desperate, a shadow of its former self, but nevertheless with plenty to lose and everything to gain in securing oil through the tutelage of client states, whose people believe they will receive democracy in return for the dangerous game of aligning themselves with Western freedom. It is hard to imagine a more ominous conjunction of competing pretensions and imperatives.

It is not long into the fabled ‘American century’ and it is already collapsing. Guy Rundle argues in this issue of Arena Magazine that American culture has been emptied out into ersatz forms of media-driven community. John Hinkson charts a second stage in America’s sub-prime crisis in the context of the US scramble to secure its economic future. As economic and geopolitical pressures build, the question of what this dangerous situation might all be for hardly emerges. For the American way, some have said, for the moral compass provided by free-acting markets and their agents; but in fact the strongest element in this depressing scenario is a common interest shared by these competing empires.

Which Empire? There are three superstates with (neo-) colonial pretensions, emerging or receding, on the world scene; but in a more general sense, Empire refers to a government of feeling; an exercise of power over actions and desire. Through repression or seduction these superpowers are intent on producing or maintaining a way of life built on unsustainable economic and environmental assumptions, and on universalising cultural mores associated with the spread of a contagious form of hightech capitalism. None of the elements add up, unless, perhaps, you are master of the ultimate chess game. For ordinary people the struggle and strategy will have to take a different form, and surely a rejection of the basic assumptions that give Empire, in the broader sense, legitimacy: a rejection of our collective kowtowing to a mysterious power that explodes the particulars of community and denies more subterranean channels of cultural identity and social meaning.

Alison Caddick