Empires, sub-empires & peripheries

Hubert Sauper’s 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare is an astonishingly intimate and compassionate inquiry into one of the garbage heaps of our global consumer society, on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. It is also beautifully filmed, the colors of sky and water and shimmering of rotting fish, the smiles and gestures of the people, their obvious embarrassment at the strange and contradictory situation they're in, all make it hard to distance oneself from this complicated story or to deny our own complicity.

In Mwanza, giant Russian cargo jets swoop down to scoop up loads of frozen fish for the European market, while the greater part of the local population starves. The big planes sometimes arrive empty, but at other times bring cargos of tanks and other weapons to supply and enourage the region's many warlords. Sauper gets amazingly intimate interviews with those conflicted pilots, with Tanzanian prostitutes who serve them and other foreigners, a fish-factory owner, and a night watchman who hopes for war (because it would mean a better salary), and also shows us neatly-uniformed factory workers, crippled fishermen, street urchins squabbling over fish carcasses and intoxicating glue, Tanzanian government officials and European investors who want to look only at the "positive side" of the fish export business, and at the fish itself -- the Nile perch, a foreign species that has taken over the lake and grown almost as big as the Ilyushin cargo jets.

This whole complex story made me think again of a 2-year old lecture I just listened to last week, and that you may want to listen to on the web: A New American Empire? by Professor Stephen Rosen of Harvard. Rosen thinks the U.S. is not yet an empire, but that it has since Clinton been behaving like one -- disregarding the sovereignty of other states within its "imperium," or area of hegemony, and exercising overwhelming military force within that region. The disparity of power between the U.S. and every other potentially allied country is so great that this country has only three choices, Rosen thinks: to assume full imperial control in the regions of interest to it, to limit itself to intervening only in coalition with other military powers, or to withdraw from any interference overseas and just take care of our own North American territory. The second option is unrealistic, because there just isn't any other military power the U.S. needs to take seriously, at least not among our potential allies. The U.S. army spends more on R&D than France does on its entire military. The third option is also unlikely, though the Tom Delay wing of the Republican Party would probably favor it. But the first option implies more than invading and trying to police a foreign country whenever we are provoked. Rather, it implies assuming responsibilities of maintaining stability and some degree of prosperity in the regions that accept our imperial dominance. Rosen proposes the establishment of an "imperial civil service," similar to what the Romans, the Ottoman, the Chinese, and the British all had in their respective empires -- that Harvard and other institutions undertake to train people to serve in foreign regions.

OK, so how do I connect Sauper's film and Rosen's lecture? I see what is happening in Mwanza as a consequence of the breakup of an older imperial system, and the failure so far to consolidate a new one. But this note is already too long, and the connections you see between the film and the tectonic shifts in global imperial systems since, say, 1989 may be very different from the ones I see. But check out both the lecture and the film, if you can.

No comments: