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Reversing the Pistons of Empire: One America for Peace

Monday 31 October 2005

By Greg Moses

Whip lashed by serial collisions of imperial power, dissident movements in the USA brace for the next shocking thing. We have been hijacked into a crashing invasion of Iraq, slammed around by evasive maneuvers in New Orleans, and now along the borderlands of the Southwest USA, signs warn that a highway of accommodation is about to end, dumping us head-on into deserts of aggression upon Latin American peoples.

Into each new crisis, empire roars forward, pumping high octane into its five-piston engine. Whether stirring borderland provocations at home, fighting wars of aggression abroad, or exploiting crises of colonized communities anywhere, the five pistons of empire always work the same.

The first two pistons of empire rub against each other in a dual cycle of excitement: racialization and criminalization. Whether we are talking about war on terror, containment of victims of Katrina, or preparations for aggression upon Latin American immigrants, empire is busy making peoples into races the better to criminalize them wholesale.

The third piston kicks into motion after peoples have been racialized and criminalized. This is the piston of militarization. Guns and propaganda. Brute technologies of power. In Iraq, this piston was stoked on a large scale with advance planning. In New Orleans, as if by reflex, it was improvised overnight. And in the future of the borderlands, militarization is being foreshadowed in word and deed.

The fourth piston is privatization. Political players who deploy military strategies profitize the game so that huge fortunes can be made quickly. In Iraq we see privatization with malice aforethought; in the aftermath of Katrina, privatization on the fly. Along the borderlands, keep an eye out. How much of the militarization will be subcontracted? How much cement will be cast into a great wall, by whom will it be poured, and for how much moolah?

Piston five is legitimization, the sweet arts that consolidate empire’s victory as ‘common good’ and ‘enduring freedom’ for all. This last piston is knocking around under the hood these days. In Iraq and New Orleans, there is a legitimization gap. That would be better news, if the gap in those places didn’t make the border wars seem all the more tempting as a red-blooded thrust to re-energize an imperial base.

So these are the five pistons. One right after the other, they fire up for every imperial advance. And they have been working this way at least since Western Pennsylvania was conquered by settlers and the Pennsylvania legislature taken out of Quaker control and put into the hands of a faction led by Benjamin Franklin. We’re not the first generation of peacemakers to be tossed around the back of the wagon by expansionists for self defense.

Quakers remind us that resistance to the five pistons of empire has been going on at least since the day William Penn named the town of Philadelphia. For Pennsylvania, Penn envisioned an enterprise of peace and reciprocity. Indigenous peoples would be respected, slavery outlawed, etc. A penitentiary would be a dwelling place for thinking things through. For about 75 years, the method worked astonishingly well.

Meanwhile, near Philadelphia grew the Germantown community, with its stream of mystics and cooperative entrepreneurs who came from the farms and universities of Europe into thick Eastern woodlands seeking unification with the One. In 1688, Germantown passed an anti-slavery resolution, said to be the first of its kind among the European immigrant communities of the so-called New World.

So when I travel through the heart of German Texas, near towns named Boerne, Fredericksburg, and New Braunfels, I am reminded that empire has never been a totalizing machine. Surely things could be worse and would be, had we not always in North America grown our own resistance, too. Against the five pistons there are - and for several centuries there have been - five modes of resistance.

Against the first two pistons of empire (racialization and criminalization) resistance poses counterforces of pluralization and legalization: establishing equity between peoples (not just between persons) and working against the tendency for law to be used a weapon of group domination. When George Fox toured America in 1661 (with William Penn) he sat down and slept beside indigenous peoples. To the offense of white Christians, Fox denounced attitudes of Christian spiritual superiority and practices of slavery, too.

In Iraq, the process of racialization and criminalization draws upon thick cultural roots old as the crusades. USA provisional authorities racialized and criminalized Sunni Muslims as a strategy to neutralize Saddamist resistance. Widespread enforcement of de-Baathification violated international laws against collective punishment and provoked deadly backlash, which empire loves to see, because backlash begets backlash, and guess who’s ready to privatize such a colossal mess? Recently, thanks to a film by Arkansas brothers Craig and Brent Renaud, we have watched a guardsman say: every civilian in the Middle East is a potential terrorist, the more killed the better. This well-fed attitude is sure to keep the privatizers in business just a little longer, with each passing month good for a few billion more.

In New Orleans, says grassroots organizer Malik Rahim, white activists with guns were allowed to pass into the city, while black doctors with medicine were not. Whereas guns were welcomed into a criminalizing situation, medicine could not be allowed to humanize. In New Orleans, a Common Ground Collective respects needs of all individuals and takes seriously the differing circumstances that people face. If cops can make allowances for each other when looting stores for ice and batteries, then activists can make allowances for petty theft among desperate victims, too. This is criminalization’s counterforce. Call it legalization of human beings and pluralism between peoples.

Along the borderlands between Latin American and El Norte, pluralism and legalization would mean respecting each other’s needs for free movement, suitable work, and fair pay, regardless of national origin. With militarization threatening the borderlands, it is urgent that we seek de-militarization certainly, but more than that, we have to try for something that has no single word. The opposite of militarization is not de-militarization; it is wholesale commitment to an economy of nonviolence, a prioritization of peaceful means to power among the people. If not pacification, shall we call it peace work? Such work builds the kind of human security that follows from experiences of pluralization and legalization.

Which brings us to the problem of privatization or the exploitation of a militarized situation for profit. The Common Ground Collective in New Orleans points directly toward struggle’s answer: collective, open, democratic organization of resources. I don’t think this precludes private property, but it certainly does debunk private profit as an end in itself. And this denunciation of private profit as the ultimate ruler of values is about as communist as Thomas Hobbes (who said you have to throw out the right to all things only if you want peace).

The final mode of resistance is education. After pluralization, legalization, pacification, and collective organization, education is badly needed to tend the crafts of knowledge and learning - to counteract legitimization.

If these modes of resistance have to be re-invented, then so be it. But we never find ourselves nowhere, especially not right now. I am only trying to think about resistance in hopeful ways as interlocking and multidimensional struggle, already and always on the ground with real life experience of the imperial pistons. De-militarizers are coming to the fore lately, and that’s good. But pluralizers are hard at work, and legalizers, too. Collective organizers are always findable. And educators are widely dispersed and active.

As we prepare to face the pistons of empire at the borderlands, we may look forward to a historical opportunity to unify American resistance from North to South. And that’s far from a nowhere place to begin.


Note: Thanks to Tom Wells and the Speak Truth to Power Series at Schreiner University, Kerrville, TX for commissioning these remarks for a talk on Oct. 19, 2005.

Forum posts

  • Beautifully written, thankyou. Resistance implies polarization. The idea is not to play the polarization game at all. Otherwise opposites are continually perpetuated. It makes much more sense to re-invent, as you say. All five pistons. My dream job would be as an advisor to re-invent the education system. I’ve been thinking about it for 30 years. Wouldn’t it be much better to re-invent than to continually repair? Don’t resist. Re-invent.

    • PARIS, France (Reuters) — French youths rioted in a Paris suburb for the fifth night running on Tuesday, raising fresh questions about Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s "zero tolerance" policy towards the violence.

  • I find Mr. Moses’s article very insightful, except for one thing. To call what the Federal Government of the US is doing as ’privatization’, is a misnomer, at best, or you are unfortunately accepting the Bush Administration’s definition of ’privatization’ as the correct one. It is very plainly not. In a true free market based economy, the government would award public works to the lowest experienced bidder with the best proposal. What the US Federal Government is doing, allowing no open bids on huge contracts, the richest of these strictly reserved for Bush cronies, cannot be mistaken for honest privatization, this is nothing but handing out charters for state-run monopolies, the anathema to a free market, and extremely unAmerican to boot. All this talk of ’free enterprise’ nonsense our nation’s political class has been harking about for generations is full of meaningless hot air. There hasn’t been any true free market in this country for decades.

    What we see are markets dominated by oligarchic behemoths, who often work in collusion and in secrecy, and competition be damned. You can readily see this in most of the largest industries, dominated by no more than 5 giant companies, really often 2 or 3. This economic system, a powerful but very vulnerable form of state-run capitalism some call it a malevolent form of socialism as envisioned by old money parasites was generated by our central banking service and secretly, our Planning Commission, the Federal Reserve Board.

    The Federal Reserve Board members can be speak the newspeak as good as the best mouth pieces of the Pentagon or the Justice Department. Words like ’Free Enterprise’ and ’Open Markets’ are used in much the same manner as ’Exporting Democracy’ or ’Fighting for World Peace’ are used by the Feds, phrases twisted to such perverted ends that they become the very opposite of the virtues that they were intended to symbolize.
    Avoiding the truth is rightfully considered to be a sign of misguided leadership. But to actively and continuously pervert the truth, can only be a sign of evil. And a democracy cannot let itself by ruled by evil, not if it wishes to survive.

  • Doesn’t reversing the pistons cause an engine to burn up?

    • PARIS, France — French President Jacques Chirac has called for calm and warned of a "dangerous situation" following a sixth night of violence in poor Paris suburbs.

    • "Bread and circus", that was the rationale of ancient Rome, and of most of todays` western governments.

      Football and reality t.v., the illusion of "personalities", "terror" alerts, unemployment, "strong" police forces, whilst all the time gripping the throats of the poor. Poverty-line wages, tower block apartments, processed food, inadequate education.

      Because desperate for work, the underclass fights within itself to find food and work. Or even stealing, just to eat.

      Which gives the silk-suited elites the moment to shout that the "people" need protection, and so the police get larger budgets, which helps prevent them turning on their masters.
      Until of course, the people get pissed off, as they did in Romania, when they took the president and his wife around to the back of the palace, and transformed Romanian politics in less than sixty seconds, transformed Romanian politics.