Chalmers Johnson on Empire – and the space for thought

This video comes from 2007 as part of Berkeley’s “Conversations with History” show. The inimitable Chalmers Johnson discusses his “Blowback” trilogy of books — “Blowback”, “Sorrows for Empire” and “Nemesis”. All of them revolve around U.S. foreign policy and militarism. He starts by discussing the contradiction between U.S. domestic democracy and foreign empire, arguing that one has got to give (and concludes that like Rome, the ascent of U.S. militarism will  prevail in lieu of grassroots revolution).

Like George Washington, who wrote that the biggest threat to the nascent American Republic is a “standing army” (a speech read out to the U.S. Congress at the start of each session), and Eisenhower, who said the same of the “military-industrial complex”, Johnson sees modern American empire as rooted in the vast network of American military bases (his focus point was Okinawa, Japan). It is the military base that is the “element” (or core ingredient) of U.S. empire, just as the “colony” fed the Portuguese or British Empires, and just as the “satellite state” fed the Soviet Empire. (As TomDispatch has reported, this network of bases numbers over 1,000).

Pessimistic, or realistic about the future of empire’s overstretch, Johnson discusses the absolute necessity of “thinking” as a way of transcending  the unthinking complicity of empire. Here, he borrows from Hannah Arendt, who developed her thoughts on the ethics of thinking in relation to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious SS official that put countless Jews to death in a concentration camp, and yet argued in his trial in Israel that he was just doing his job – that he was a bureaucrat, a technician, a cog in the machine (herein lies her famous phrase “the banality of evil”).

Arendt is absolutely right, and like french philosopher Alain Badiou that would come later, sees thinking as a radical kind of “subtraction” from the current state of the situation, rather than an immanent relationship with “what is”.

Thinking then becomes a type of “witnessing”, a space not simply of refusal, but first and foremost a space of re-cognition–where what is re-cognized is the very absurdity of empire.

Anyway, over to Johnson, who is far more articulate than I can ever hope to be.

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