There was a very strange book published in 1981 by Philip K Dick, Valis, and it’s the most exasperating I've ever read. On the one hand it’s clearly autobiographical, containing details about Dick‘s own life, his failed marriage and nervous breakdown; on the other there are fantastical elements which might be describing something that actually happened, but might just as easily be science fiction conceits. I won't go into the plot here, except to say that there’s a single line he repeats over and over again throughout the text. The Empire never ended, he says. The Empire never ended.
The Empire is the institution, the codification of derangement; it is insane and imposes its insanity upon us by violence, since its nature is a violent one.
He's talking about the Roman Empire. In some form or another, the Roman Empire has continued to flourish, long after its apparent demise, taking on various disguises. In fact, he says, the time between the era of the early Christians in their ongoing spiritual war with the Roman Empire and now—the time he was writing in, the late-1970s and early-80s—is false time. That era and this era are beginning to coalesce. We’re now living in apostolic times. This may be just a science fiction conceit, a plot device to keep the novel going. Or Dick may have believed that it was true. I suspect the latter.
However you want to view it, there may be some truth in this assertion. It may not be literally true, but psychologically, spiritually, economically, militarily, you might say, the Empire really has never ended. Or if it ever went away, it has returned with a vengeance. You only have to look at a bunch of riot police in full combat mode, with their shields and their batons, their close formations, their phalanxes and their armor to know that Roman military techniques are still in evidence.
The Empire’s a psychological as well as a military state. It exists as a mental construct, as a psychopathic state of mind, as a system of control. All of us are infected with this thought-form virus. It's no use hating our rulers. In their position we’d do exactly the same. It's not a question of right versus left. It's not even a question of right versus wrong. It's a question of survival.
War isn’t just like peace but with bombs. It’s a wholly different state of mind. In war the psychopaths are in control. Everyone’s a psychopath to some degree. Not every psychopath is a killer. Most psychopathologies are controlled in a state of peace, since the first concern of the psychopath is to blend in. But in the state of war the psychopath is unleashed on the world. The psychopath as ruler, as state, as war-profiteer, as war-monger, as war-addict, and in every single individual.
War is the psychopath's playground. Now all the rules are dispensed with. Now every human is an object of sensory gratification. Now power rules. Now I can take pot shots at the little objects around me pretending to be human. Nothing matters any more but my own self-gratification. Other people's bodies become playthings in the hands of the torturers in us all. This has always been the case in a state of war. It's either self-gratification or self-sacrifice, the worst and the best, and there’s a historical power struggle dedicated to this cause, the retention of war as a means of gratification and control. This is the true meaning of "the Empire." It's what Dick means when he says, “the Empire never ended.”
It’s been 20 years since the invasion of Iraq. Much has happened since that time, but much remains the same. There have been endless wars: the war in Afghanistan, the war in Libya, the war in Syria, now the war in Ukraine. We moved seamlessly from the end of the Cold War, to a new era of war, taking in the whole world. Each war was marked by its particular propaganda. In the case of Libya it was the claim, since proved false, that Gaddafi was planning a massacre of civilians in Benghazi. In Syria it was the disputed claim that Assad used chemical weapons. In the case of Iraq, notoriously, it was weapons of mass destruction.
The following is from a 1919 essay called "The Sociology of Imperialisms" by Joseph Schumpeter. 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."
You only have to replace the word "Rome" with "The United States" for that statement to become perfectly true of today's world. The other thing about the Romans is that they regarded all other nations as barbarians. Civilization was the unique preserve of the Roman State and Roman society.
There was a peculiar item on the Channel 4 news at the time of the invasion: some British reporter "embedded" with American troops in Iraq having to deal with the local populace. It was odd: this American soldier, trying to be friendly for the sake of the cameras, extolling the virtues of the “American Way of Life” to a room full of Iraqi men and women, while, outside, US forces were bombarding an empty vineyard. Why were they bombarding an empty vineyard? It was just in case some insurgents might be intending to use it, they said.
Apparently, in America, if you don't like your mobile phone company, you can change the company. And if you don't like your politicians, you can change your politicians. That's how the friendly soldier was trying to sell the invasion to the Iraqi population. Politicians and mobile phone companies are both part of the democratic way of life that the United States is bringing to Iraq. The guy was sincere, by the way. He'd obviously been hand-picked for this reason. He was clearly a nice guy who just wanted to educate these dumb Iraqis about America. He was trying to civilize them. The Iraqis, meanwhile, were looking perplexed. They didn't know what he was talking about.
I mean: the country that bought us Coca-Cola and Mickey Mouse, trying to civilize the Iraqis. This is one of the most civilized nations on the planet: or at least it was until the British and the Americans took over, until oil was found there. I'm not being anti-American here. We British share as much of the blame. The Empire that Dick is talking about is currently the preserve of the American state. Previously it was the British state. Take a look at the Iraqi borders, with their straight lines and their squiggles. The Iraqis didn't draw them. The Americans didn't draw them. The British did. They drew those lines to delineate where the oil was. The Americans are only following an Imperialist design that the British had already laid down in the sand.
Some facts about Iraq. Modern civilization began in Iraq. The Iraqis invented agriculture, astronomy and astrology. The entire astrological system still in use today in every newspaper was invented in Iraq over 5000 years ago. They discovered the planets, they mapped the stars. They invented the 24-hour day, the 60-minute hour and the 60-second minute. In a sense we still live within Iraqi time. They invented the seven-day week. They invented mathematics and writing. The earliest known work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in cuneiform script on clay tablets in about 2750 BC in the land of Sumeria, in a region of modern Iraq, talks about a place called Uruk, of which Gilgamesh is the King. This is how ancient and consistent this region is, that the name of the country still holds. The book describes one of the earliest cities ever built, which housed a population of over 50,000: its immense walls, its towering public buildings, its statues and architecture.
Interestingly, I put the word "Uruk" into my search engine and got the website of one of the critical anti-American groups working in Iraq: uruknet.info. The Iraqis know their own history even if we've forgotten it.
Abraham was born in Iraq, in a city called Ur in the North. In that sense you can say that God was born in Iraq too: that the idea of God was born there. Also, according to the Bible, Eden is located in Iraq, between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. You can read it in Genesis 2:10-14. Iraqis living in this region agree. They believe that this was once Eden. Even as little as forty years ago, this still was Eden, the place where the marsh Arabs lived. Before the first Gulf War, before the marsh Arabs uprising, before Saddam drained the marshes and drove them all out.
Iraq had always been a place of religious tolerance. Several of the world's religions once flourished here, plus some that couldn’t have survived anywhere else. Not only did it support Sunni and Shia Muslims, it was also home to Assyrian Christians, who still recite the Gospels in their original Aramaic, the language of Jesus; Nestorian Christians, a sect who believe that Jesus had a duel nature, one half purely human, the other half purely divine, plus the last of the Gnostic sects, the Mandaeans, followers of John the Baptist, who to this day practice daily baptism in baths they refer to as the River Jordon, and who refer to God as The Great Life. Until 1948 Iraq had one of the largest populations of Jews in the Middle east, a population who were respected according to Islamic law, along with Christians and Mandaeans, as "People of the Book." There's been a Jewish population in Iraq since 791 BC.
Take a note of this: pogroms against the Jews were not committed in Muslim countries at all, but in Christian countries. Until 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews were respected throughout the Middle East. That's a fact. Iraq had no sustained history of anti-Semitism before 1948.
This is a selective reading of the history of Iraq, as any history must be. I offer it as an antidote to the more recent understanding of Iraq as a country of terrorists. The problem with culture is that it can be wiped out in a generation. Attack and humiliate one generation and watch what happens. Watch the lure of crime. Watch the sectarianism. Watch the terrorism. Watch the violence. Watch the kidnapping and murder. You can wipe away a thousand years of culture in the space a few years. That's exactly what has happened in Iraq.
There was talk about weapons of mass destruction and an Iraqi nuclear bomb. It was all false, as we now know, but it was at least plausible at the time because Iraqi scientists were capable of creating such things: not just nuclear as well as biological weapons, but advanced technology for peaceful uses too. As well as being an ancient state, Iraq was—at least until the sanctions and then the war—an advanced state, an educated state. Iraqi doctors, scientists, designers and technicians were amongst the most qualified in the world. Iraqi artists, writers, film-makers and musicians abounded. This was a culture that encouraged art, science, learning, and had always done so. The idea that we have anything to teach the Iraqis about civilization is absurd.
After the invasion the occupying armies sent troops to protect the oil ministry and the oil fields, and allowed the museums to be looted. All that Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian art. All of that cultural treasure from the oldest civilizations on this planet. Taken away. Where to? Into private collections, no doubt. Into the hands of those who declared this war. I'm fairly certain that some people already had their shopping lists before the invasion and that they were allowed to do this.
The point about Imperialism is that it’s profitable. War is profit. Economic growth is a measure of economic activity. A pile-up on the road contributes to economic growth. Ambulances have to be sent out, police cars, fire engines. The emergency services. Cars cleared from the road. Cars replaced. Insurance paid out. It's all economic. It all adds to growth. How much more so a war, then? Armaments are made, armies are trained, uniforms are cut and sown. Buildings are blown up and rebuilt. Infrastructure is destroyed and then remade. People don't come into this equation except as collateral damage.
The beauty of this for the United States and British elites is that the public were paying for it all. They paid private companies to build arms, and armies to use them to knock down buildings, and then private companies to rebuild the buildings again. Private companies to guard the oil fields. Private companies to fix the electricity and the water supply. Private companies to make a profit and all out of taxpayer’s funds, what Noam Chomsky calls “the Welfare State for the Rich”; what the Americans, colloquially, call a boondoggle.
None of this bears any resemblance to what we used to call capitalism. All of this is done through the agency of the state for the profit of those who control the state apparatus. Capitalism is a euphemism. It’s a cover story. This isn’t a capitalist system. The capitalist system died sometime in the 18th century during the South Sea Bubble. Since then capitalism has been state sponsored. Maybe it always was. All that guff about "enterprise" and "risk-takers." These people take no risks. They live in state-sponsored luxury. This isn’t a capitalist system, it’s an imperialist system, the only difference is that instead of a single emperor there’s a whole class of emperors, an oligarchy, who share the spoils out between them: 2000 Neros instead of one, and all of them just as mad. They control the armies and governments. They control the research and development. They control the economy. They control what we see on the news, and to a large degree, as a consequence, they control what we think.
We have bread and circuses. We have Graham Norton and the World Cup. We have Walmart and 7-Eleven. We have Hollywood blockbusters and TV soap operas. We have wars we never asked for against nations we've never heard of. We've got threats from around the globe. If international terrorism doesn't get you then Covid will. We've got drug companies making ridiculous profits while our recreational drugs are in the hands of the mafia. We've got obscene wealth in the midst of obscene poverty. We've got lies to send us to war, and lies to keep us there.
One final thing, from me to you. You can believe it or not. The revolution is both political and spiritual. Anything that’s only spiritual, or only political isn’t revolutionary. It's like man and woman. It's like left and right. It's like heart and soul. All things come together in this.