Thursday, 10 July 2014

Empires & Resistance

Around 425 BC, Athenian imperialism turned on the small city-state of Melos. The Melians wished to stay neutral but this was not good enough for the leading 'democracy' of the day fighting its own 'evil imperial adversary' Sparta.

The Melians decided to resist despite the superior military resources of the Athenians. This is what they said: " ... to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect ..."

The Melians relied on action as 'hope' but not much better than that. The sentiment is one familiar to those who have studied the Amerindian resistance to the white settlers - an appeal to the essential rightness of their world because it has always been so but awareness deep down of the futility of it all.

Needless to say, there were no gods to trust in and they were crushed. For their resistance, despite fighting bravely, the men were all slaughtered and the women and children were all enslaved. Thus, the glorious conduct of a democracy that has acted as beacon for the modern world's sentimental liberals.

The Athenians had serious ideas about freedom and justice, of course, but they were ideas only for themselves or to be imposed on others for their own ultimate convenience - an attitude of mind familiar to us today. Imperialists can never leave things alone. They must meddle.

Putting Ideas into Rebel's Mouths

Half a millennium later, the Roman historian Tacitus almost certainly created the Calgacus who may or may not have been a genuine Celtic chieftain defeated by the Roman Empire around 80-83AD when Rome was busy thieving the British Isles from its indigenous peoples.

Tacitus 'invents' or reports a statement of resistance to imperialism that stands alongside those that emerged later from North American indigenous tribes.

"To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain's glory has up to this time been a defence ... there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission

"Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches."

And then these famous lines: "To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire: they make a desert and call it peace."  I suppose, if anyone asks, this provides the basis for a reasonable answer to the question of what the Romans did for us ...

You may compare this again to another alleged speech, this time of Hatuey, Chief of the Tainos, who led the guerrilla resistance against the Spanish in what was to become Cuba and who was captured and burned alive at the stake in 1511:

"Here is the God the Spaniards worship ... They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of Peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. 

"They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they steal our belongings, seduce our women, rape our daughters. Incapable of matching our courage in battle, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break."

Again, the speech strikes one as constructed for literary purposes by the conquerors but the sentiments were inspiring to Cuban revolutionaries as perhaps one day what Calgacus said might inspire the people of Britain in their struggle against European bureaucracy.

Still, they could be seen as a bit of a futile whine from the losers in life's race if one was so inclined.

And, of course, the 'real' savages of the Celtic North and North America were not averse to a bit of tribal violence, rapine and thievery against their weaker tribal neighbours (the Tainos no doubt warred with the Caribs as the Wichita with the Comanches). Nor did Melos' wealth come without slaves.

But for Hatuey's God, read Calgacus' Rome and the iron horse is an analogue to the superior organisation of the Romans or the Athenians but what the writers really see through is the use of ideology as cover for rapine.

For the savages, thuggery is just what they do, for us civilised ones, it has to be justified.

In the first case, pagan 'virtue' is implicit rather than stated but, in the second, the reference to the God of the Christians is explicit. Ideology is part of the machinery of theft. The violence and brutality, as each ages passes, gets cloaked in more layers of essentialist guff.

At least in these cases, some people within the imperial systems knew that bad things were being done in the name of the good and were prepared to ask questions but, whether Roman bureaucrats or Spanish monks, the critique is always elliptical.

Tacitus and our anonymous Hispanic chronicler have the resigned air of the fearful intellectual within the system who wishes the world could be different and then goes back to his laden table. We know the type - the op ed columns of our contemporary media are filled with such sentimentalists.

Slave Revolts

But empires are not only about the business of acquiring land and agricultural and mineral resources, they are also about acquiring labour resources.

Globalisation today is about the re-allocation of labour resources for the profit of the imperiums of our day as much as capture of slaves by armed force has been the central dynamic of past empires. In the past, this meant a far more overt commitment to slavery. But not now.

Today, empire is defined by its enabling of free movement. The defining of slavery has become the cleverly constructed differentiator of 'good' and 'bad' imperialism ever since British evangelicals took the moral high ground and made use of the British Navy to sink slavers. If only it were all so simple.

Periodically, the enslaved found a rare opportunity to resist on their terms and to 'make themselves'. Between 73 and 71BC, a major slave revolt took place within the Roman Empire led by a former gladiator of now legendary status, the Thracian former soldier Spartacus.

The revolt was put down bloodily. Despite the claims of Hollywood, Spartacus probably died in battle rather than on the cross. He should not be over-romanticised - his probable interest was to grab the spoils of Italy for a new ruling order rather than anything truly liberatory.

According to the Roman historians, he mounted one of the earliest prison break-outs in surviving history with 70 others from the slave-training school in Capua. From this perspective, whatever his motives, he can count as a figure of resistance to the Man or as a 'most wanted' criminal to taste.



Initially, he was little more than a brigand but his mere presence on and around Mount Vesuvius drew others to him and he proved a good leader of men. Local police actions were easily defeated.

A second, more determined, police effort was still underprepared, not taking this brigand seriously enough, and a Roman General (the Chief Constable, if you like) was humiliatingly lucky to escape capture.

But, in the end, when the system wants to crush you and there is no one at home base with the authority to demur, you will be crushed. And so he was.

We might compare this with the slave uprising of Ali Bin Muhammad, one of a series of such revolts of East African slaves around Basra under the Abbasids between 869 and 883 AD.

Ali was captured and executed in 881 but such revolts could involve up to 500,000 slaves, indicating the degree to which the Arab Abbasids depended as much on stolen human labour as the Romans - and as much as did the foundation of the British Empire for that matter.

The Abbasids, often praised, like the Romans, for their cultural achievements, drew in East African blacks into the marshlands in order to reclaim them for agriculture and feed their teeming Baghdad. These are the same territories that Saddam Hussein granted to his top officers for services rendered.

As with Spartacus, Ali appeared out of nowhere and began liberating slaves in batches ranging from 50 to 500 until he had accumulated a formidable force that was promised property (since many uprooted slaves might not be enamoured of a freedom that was hunger).

Nor was he a liberationist in the modern sense for what he promised the slaves was - their own slaves, of course.

He positioned himself (according to the legend) as a servant of Allah and was allegedly merciful to the slave traders and owners insofar as he spared their lives and freed them but only after a thorough beating from which some might well not have survived.

Today, Spartacus and Ali whose moral compasses were very limited might certainly be regarded as criminals and terrorists. The system that enslaved them in the first place made the law and revolt against that system became the crime. Again, a familiar ideological stance today.

Perhaps America's jails are holding places for psychopaths but they may also be holding places for free men enslaved when the 'crimes' are social constructs. Who is it that decides that trading in alcohol in one decade and drugs in another or engaging in consensual sex trades between equals is a 'crime'?

The last word on slave revolts come from Korea and three hundred years later, showing the ubiquity of slavery in space and time - and that what has existed once may exist again. This is from Manjok's slave rebellion which was planned but discovered and Manjok was killed - murdered, we might say.

He is said to have said:

"Are generals and ministers born to these glories? No! For when the time is auspicious anyone can hold such office. Why then should we work ourselves to the bone and suffer under the whip? ... If each hereditary slave kills his master and burns records of his status, thus ending the system of hereditary slavery in our country, then each of us will be able to become a minister or a general."

The Lessons For Today

There was no justice for the Melians, the Celts or the Tainos while the leaders of slave and peasant revolts invariably died alongside their many followers.

The 'iron' of superior organisation and technology - the sheer inertia of the few having a stake in an unfair society that gave them the resources for domination - would overwhelm any resistance to expansion or internal revolt from exploitation.

The lesson would appear to be that there is no hope in revolt under such conditions unless you just want to make a point and then die - or are just so desperate that even the risk of death is better than servility. Perhaps this lies at the heart of the suicide bomber's decision..

The only chance for the common man in the past was to tie yourself to a warlord arising on the margins of a flailing empire and hope that he wins his battles and becomes secure on his territory so that you can gain land - and slaves - of your own.

Or perhaps you could join a legion or regiment and fight the fuzzy-wuzzies for a small slice of the action ... and is this not the set of choices (revolt, warlordism or becoming an agent of state force) that is all that is left for many men in a world without economic security or personal respect.

Perhaps this is why the barbarian warlord and the insurgent are often marginally more attractive, for all their stupidities and barbarities, than the systematic exploitation of millions and then billions through a system that serves the few and not the many and then engages the many amongst its few, its own working people, in an elaborate ideological cover-up to ensure the machinery of exploitation.

There was always a link between expansion and exploitation because, then as now, servile labour could be transported across seas to keep down the price of indigenous labour and excess human production at home could be siphoned off to work the land stolen from those defeated in battle.

A strange dynamic of economic growth through atrocity built the modern world. This dynamic in its most brutal form has, of course, ended with the end of the frontier. Or has the frontier closed after all? Perhaps we have been seduced by an American internal narrative and not seen the frontiers of today.

Nearly all land has been captured for the imperial market system in theory and that which has not belongs to somewhat authoritarian states of resistance or what are called 'failed' but which might equally be called 'free' if violent, anarchic and communitarianly oppressive states.

Yet there are many 'frontiers' of asymmetry emerging once again as globalisation fails to deliver economic prosperity at the speed required to match mass aspirations and expectations - there are migration frontiers, market frontiers, frontiers where traditionalism resists commodification.

The revolution in the means of production that originated from the unique properties of the slave-based British Empire not merely enabled slavery to be replaced with 'free' labour but scored that empire an ideological lead in terms of its claims about freedom and democracy.

But these changes saw scarcely a jot of difference to the actual holding of wealth in terms of its proportions between mass and elite. It worked because the total amount of wealth rose and spread for those within the total system.

The mass could feel it was always getting richer. This in turn could lead to a reasonable working class conservatism because concern for those who were truly exploited much further down the line might disrupt the ability to survive yourself.

No doubt the Roman working classes who enjoyed free bread and circuses would quite rationally have felt the same.

However, modern elites have became far more fluid, based on innovation, but perhaps much less than we are led to believe - landholdings in the UK are still highly concentrated on surprisingly few people. What they do have is control over organisation and culture.

This whole system (today) depends on continuing trickle-down but we know that the relative benefit to (say) the American middle classes started to decline from approximately the 1970s.

What will the 'few' do when the many start to face severe economic pressure and there is no money left in the kitty for hand-outs because the 'imperial system' is running down?

They will, of course, have to rely on 'security' - superior force - as they have done whenever the mass of the population starts to get a bit itchy - and that requires an ideology of threat to justify it. It requires surveillance, cultural control, fear and quasi-gulags.

Thus it is in the logic of history that the US Administration now leads in creating an ideology of fear within the West and makes demands for high defence and security spending to counter the coming effects of relative pauperisation.

Fear amongst the old and propertied then affects the young populations of both the West (as the old become a dead weight of expenditures on the young) and the South (as its young start to press on the borders of the West from desperation).

Youthful resentments in the West and youthful desires for a better life outside the West make for a potentially volatile cocktail that must worry those who manage the wealth on which the older generations expect to rely for their pensions.

Two and a half thousand years after the destruction of Melos, we are still seeking to crush smaller players for profit and coating our passion for power with fine rhetoric and nonsense. Two thousand years after Spartacus, we are still puzzling on how to deal with the revolts of the damned.

[The quotations are adaptations from 'The Verso Book of Dissent', 2010 ]