Oct 24, 2023, 06:24AM

The Empire Never Ended

Notes from a time of monsters.

Palestine gaza city shati refugee camp yassin mosque destroyed israel air strike 9 oct 2023 associated press.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

The phrase “The Empire Never Ended” is a quote from Valis, a very strange science fiction novel written by Philip K Dick in the 1970s. It was published in 1981. I’ve written about it a couple of times: here and here. It’s one of those books that wriggles its way into your imagination, despite it being frustrating and annoying at times.

Dick posits a sort of time leak, in which the 1st Century AD and the current time meld into each other. They overlap each other, like two transparencies in a light box, so that you can’t tell one from the other.

The Empire he’s talking about is the Roman Empire. Somehow it has continued into the present day. We’re living in apostolic times, the time of Christ’s return. A lot of people are saying similar things. What makes Dick’s book interesting is that he’s not using the traditional New Testament gospels as his source. Unlike Christian fundamentalists, he’s using the Gnostic gospels. These are the suppressed books of the many sects that existed before the New Testament was edited down to manageable proportions; before it was co-opted by the Roman Empire as a control mechanism. Dick’s apocalyptic vision has a different tone, much stranger and more psychedelic than the people who harangue you on the streets waving the Bible at you. Dick’s version involves some form of symbiosis between human beings and God in the form of “Living Information.”

According to Dick’s idea, the Roman Empire lives again. It’s in the form of the American Empire now, but it’s the same entity. It uses the same techniques. It manifests as the Black Iron Prison. This is a kind of psychological state, not unlike what William Blake was referring to when he spoke of the “mind-forg'd manacles.” It’s our programming, the way we’ve been trained to think. Whether you believe this or not, there’s something compelling in the argument. As Dick says, over and over again throughout the book, The Empire Never Ended (always like that, with capitals). The Empire Never Ended.

You can picture the Empire as a machine. It’s a mechanism for extracting wealth using the army. The armed forces are publicly funded but supplied by the private sector. It’s a money-laundering operation. Technically it’s known as Military Keynesianism. Traditional Keynesianism, recognizing that capitalism needs a constant flow of public money to keep it stable, opts for large scale infrastructure and welfare spending. That was the New Deal in the 1930s: putting public money into the public’s hands. In post-war Europe the mechanism was the welfare state. Old Age pensions. Free health services. Social security. Child benefit. Free education up to University level. Infrastructure, road and rail networks. Recreational spaces, public buildings, opera houses, art galleries, libraries, museums, theatres and music venues. In the United States a different approach was taken. This is Military Keynesianism, using the Military-Industrial Complex as the conduit for public wealth, funnelling it off into private hands through the arms industry.

So the Empire is a war machine, grinding on, ravenous for blood, for human sacrifice. It’s immeasurably profitable. It maintains its existence by promoting wars. You blow things up, you build them again, using the corporations, through which you siphon off the proceeds into off-shore accounts. There’s always a new war, a new enemy to stand up to, a new barbarism to oppose.

Here’s an account of the social mechanism behind the Roman war machine, as told by Joseph Schumpeter in The Sociology of Imperialisms (1919). He says: “There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest—why, then it was the national honour that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbours, always fighting for a breathing-space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome’s duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs.

Does that remind you of anything? How many wars have there been, just in my lifetime? I was born in 1953, so it started with the Korean War, which was part of the Cold War. The Cold War got dangerous once or twice, and almost exploded in a nuclear confrontation over Cuba. After that it was the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq War, the War in Yugoslavia. Then the “Clash of Civilizations”: Kuwait, Iraq (the first time), the War on Terror (the first war in history to be declared on an abstract noun) which included Afghanistan and then Iraq again. Then came the Libyan War, when Gaddafi got sodomized with a bayonet and Hilary Clinton laughed. “We came, we saw, he died,” she quipped, in an amusing, light-hearted manner, like Oscar Wilde at a dinner party. Then the War in Syria, in which the Empire managed to simultaneously support the jihadists, while opposing them, pitting one faction against another, while fighting the Syrian government and claiming control of the best of the oilfields at the same time. And during all of this, the War in Afghanistan, which ground on, the longest bloody conflict in post-war history: a medieval tribal people taking on the might of the most powerful Empire the world has ever known. Then what happened? Well blow me down if the troops didn’t withdraw just in time to prepare for a new war, this one in the more strategically important Ukraine.

Now we’re involved in yet another war: one of the most terrible you can imagine. We’re not even fighting an army. We’re fighting a trapped population, caught like rats in a cage, in a concentration camp, a place where a whole population is imprisoned extra-judicially, concentrated in a controlled space without recourse to the law, walled in, fenced in, ringed by weaponry and surveillance equipment. Drones hovering in the air. Spies and informants. Occasional incursions to “mow the lawn,” Israel’s recipe for permanent war. It’s like a vast human experiment: what will people do when trapped in a cage for long enough, while you control their food, medicine, water and electricity supplies? Maybe some of them—the young hotheads, the ones we know from our own streets—will take the violent way out. Maybe when they’re asked to choose between dying quickly or dying slowly, they’ll choose the former, deliberately “pricking the beast” as they fly to their doom, waking the sleeping dragon that lives next door.

The Empire is a war machine that needs a never-ending supply of blood to keep it churning. And while it feeds the profits from other people’s labor into the private bank accounts of the very rich, it also needs to control the narrative. It needs to make sure that the population is thinking the right thoughts. To do this it occupies the imagination. It enters the mind in the same way an occupying army crosses the border into a foreign land. Propaganda’s the tool for the propagation of ideas into other people’s heads. The narrative’s the story line. It’s a clever manipulation of our natural human feelings, keeping us only half-informed, while playing upon our deepest fears, feeding the dark parts of our imagination, rage and revenge. It manipulates our perception of the events as they emerge from the war zone to keep the narrative on-track. Opposition stories are suppressed. The pro-war narrative is repeated: amplified a thousand times using a compliant media, paid-off politicians, and the latest technology.

What makes the machine so scary now is how advanced it has become. The internet is the most sophisticated surveillance and control engine ever devised. It manipulates the human mind. It’s a hypnosis machine, a dissociation engine. It separates you into your own narrative groups and feeds you what you want to hear. Everyone thinks they are “researchers'' when they are trawling the internet. In reality the narratives are seeded around the airwaves for us to find. AI can mimic anything. It can create a conversation between two Hamas operatives incriminating their allies, thus encouraging dissent, while exonerating the actual perpetrators. It’s clever. It can manipulate a film of a crowd in Sydney to make it sound like they’re chanting, “Gas the Jews! Gas the Jews!”—as if there’s an existential threat to all Jews around the world—frightening the Jewish population while confusing the issue in people’s minds. This isn’t about Jews, it’s about Israel as a settler-colonial state, stealing and occupying other people’s land. We’re being gaslit on a grand scale.

Some of those old war stories should remind us how futile all this is, how war never resolves anything. There’s always negotiations in the end, followed by a necessary peace. Remember Vietnam. The Empire took on a small nation and wrecked it. It was using a different narrative in those days. Then it was anti-communism. It suppressed people in their own land, committed atrocities (Mai Lai) but that only made the people more resilient, more canny, more clever. In the end the Empire saw that it couldn’t win. It was facing opposition at home, as well as throughout the world, so it withdrew. And then it had to make peace with the Vietnamese. It was the Vietnamese who were the aggrieved party. They were the ones invaded, slaughtered, carpet-bombed in their own villages, and Napalm and Agent-Orange rained down upon them, so the population is still riddled with birth defects. And yet they decided to forgive. Isn’t this true? Vietnam now welcomes Americans to visit the places where they were once stationed in the war. The Vietnamese are gracious as a nation, despite the atrocities committed upon them by the Empire on their own soil. They’ve chosen to forgive.

I’ve always had this feeling, since I was a young adult: as if we’re living in the “End Times.” I think it’s a hippie thing. We were always talking ourselves into apocalyptic scenarios, early morning after a night consuming drugs. Lots of people on the Christian Right will agree and concur with Philip Dick’s premonition about Christ’s return, although probably not in the same terms. They’re wishing for the apocalypse. Watch out for wishes, they can sometimes come true.

But I refuse to be despondent. I’m optimistic. Right now the people of the world are looking to Palestine. The majority, who live outside our Western propaganda bubble, have made up their minds. They see this as the war of the rich on the poor, of the strong on the weak, and they know who the guilty parties are. Maybe all the madness will resolve itself. Maybe we’re not really living in the “End Times,” but in the beginning times. End of the old times, beginning of the new. As Antonio Gramsci put it: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone


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