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The External Proletariat

By       Message Iftekhar Sayeed     Permalink
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Are we the external proletariat of the American Empire?

The expression was coined by Arnold Toynbee to describe those 'primitive people' on the periphery of civilisation -- principally, the Germanic barbarians on the outer edges of the Roman Empire . That I am not alone in thinking of ourselves as the external proletariat of the USA was borne out recently by a line in a South Asian magazine: "The H1B visa quota has been increased to 300,000 per year, to encourage more of us to apply to work as cyber-coolies".

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We are more or less aware of the limes -- the geographical separation of barbarian and civilised -- and those who are not have only to stand in line for a visa to discover how substantial, like any river or desert, it is. The Roman limites are most clearly seen in Great Britain and Germany; the Rhine and the Danube in the latter, and Hadrian's Wall between the Rivers Tyne and Solway, and further north, the turf wall of Antoninus Pius between the Rivers Forth and Clyde, in the former.  

So much for the physical limes . There is a psychological limes separating the civilised from the barbarian just as substantial as any river or desert. The barbarians across the Roman limites looked upon Rome as the height of cultural achievement and earthly glory. Correspondingly, they regarded themselves as the nadir of cultural achievement and earthly glory. And this is the true limites.

That a major portion of the world regards itself as culturally, materially, and spiritually inferior to the United States should not make headlines. That most of the super-elite of the rest of the world regard themselves as the lackeys and cyber-coolies and minions of the United States should be occasion for a raising of the eyebrow. For the same South Asian magazine observes: "...the people who bemoan the time and effort it takes to get visas to South Asian countries are more than willing to undertake even humiliating procedures to join interactions in New York...." How many times have we not seen so-and-so return from a "seminar' in New York , aglow from head to toe like Moses descending from Mt. Sinai? So what if the host country regarded her a barbarian from beyond the limites admitted within for a lesson in civilisation? Of course, the authorities had all along been in terrible apprehension that the barbarian may stay for good....

For another function of the limes, from the Romans to the present day, has been to keep out those in search of less spiritual edification. In short, the illegal immigrant. The Rio Grande today serves roughly the same purpose as Hadrian's Wall or the Danube -- and with equal success. For just as the Alemanni broke through the limes, so great hordes of Mexicans and Latinos swim their way to economic emancipation. And while these desperados evoke our deepest sympathy, the seminar-attending intellectual provokes our deepest contempt.

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However, the Great Empire has planned the ultimate limes, the limes of limes, which nothing in antiquity -- and possibly nothing in the future, since there may not be any -- can or will match. I refer to the nuclear-defence shield. And just because it is a high-tech device doesn't mean it cannot compare favourably with Hadrian's Wall or the Danube frontier. In point of fact, however, it cannot compare favourably with either.

For the reason is that -- as a recent edition of Foreign Affairs alarmingly pointed out -- the American Empire has 100,000 miles of shoreline and 6,000 miles of borders with its neighbours. Last year, 475 million people, 125 million vehicles, and 21.4 million import shipments entered the Empire. Any one of these could have conveyed into Empire the modern counterpart of the bubonic plague (as evidenced by 9/11)!

At this point, we must consider the suspicion that must inevitably fall on the internal proletariat of the Empire -- the blacks, or Afro-Americans as they are politely called. For no empire is ever complete without both the internal and the external proletariat -- the coolies and the cyber-coolies. During the Second World War, blacks were regarded as a fifth column, waiting to greet Hitler. (In this they closely resembled the internal proletariat of the British Empire, the Irish.)   After the war, they were suspected of having communist sympathies, which largely explains why they were given civil rights and incorporated into the Empire. The demise of communism has largely deprived them of the benefits of affirmative action.

Now, we, the whole of South Asia, were formerly the internal proletariat of the British Empire. Is it so surprising that we behave like the external proletariat of the American Empire, which has inherited the Anglo-Saxon sceptre and diadem? No more frank avowal of the proletarian mentality has ever been penned than these lines by Nirad C. Chaudhury : "...all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule."   Every country in South Asia has a sizable complement of citizens and non-citizens in the American Empire, ever ready to promote 'nationalism' in the country they have abandoned.

Today, prizes dished out in the Empire -- the Oscar and the Pulitzer -- carry greater prestige than any indigenous award. Consider the fact that Satyajit Ray posthumously received the Bharat Ratna only after he had received the Oscar! And spare a thought for Martin Kampchen, who wrote from Santiniketan: "Several daily newspapers of Calcutta flashed the news of Jhumpa Lahiri's wedding in Calcutta as their first-page leader, complete with a colourful photo of the happy couple. First I thought: O happy  Bengal! You still honour your poets as the ancient civilisations used to do. And for a moment I remained in this innocent bliss of satisfaction. Then it dawned on me that not any writer's marriage is accorded such flattering coverage. Only expatriates who have 'made it good' abroad, who have 'done the country proud', are subjected to such exaggerated honours." Jhumpa Lahiri had just won the Pulitzer for her collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies.

Jhumpa Lahiri
(Image by Time)
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Today, we are proud when one of our children becomes a cyber-coolie in the Empire; we are even prouder when one of our children gets a degree from an Imperial school. However, it is dangerous to stake one's entire career on the future prospects of an empire; for it is of the essence of such ephemeral entities that they should appear eternal at the present moment. Those who had staked all on the permanence of the Soviet Empire well know how painful and humiliating an ideological pirouette can be.             


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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)

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