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The Bob Marley and the Wailers album Survival (1979) is one of Marley’s most politically militant recordings. The imagery of the album cover, which with one exception features the flags of African nations, suggests its theme — the need for Pan-African political unity — and the songs on the album say that that unity is to be rooted in emancipation from the dominance of a global political and economic system, a system which is largely controlled by white people. (The Wikipedia page linked to above explains the flags and the image hiding behind the album’s title.) 

One of the most constant and powerful images of Rastafarianism is that of the Babylonian captivity. You may get a brief summary of this theme by reading this essay by David W. Stowe, and then, perhaps, go deeper by reading Stowe’s remarkable book Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137. Stowe has a lot to say about the version of Psalm 137 with which I prefaced my previous post, “Rivers of Babylon” by The Melodians. I don’t suppose there’s any song that more fully captures the tone and mood of Rastafari — and the best song on Survival is a kind of extension of it, as though “Rivers of Babylon” were rewritten by a critical race theorist. That song is called “Babylon System,” and I’m invoking it here because I think it suggests a different approach to living in Babylon than the two we have already considered: infiltrating the halls of power and praying for deliverance.  

But before I go any further, I need to clarify some things. It’s pretty obvious what I’m suggesting in these posts: that living in Technopoly is best figured as a kind of Babylonian captivity. But do I really mean to compare my situation — as a comfortable, economically secure white person in one of the world’s richest countries — to those who have been uprooted from their homes and sold into slavery, subjected to endless bigotry and oppression both overt and covert? And my answer is: Yes, I mean to compare — but not to equate.

Consider for instance the moment in “The Scouring of the Shire” when the returning hobbits see what has been done to Hobbiton:

‘This is worse than Mordor!’ said Sam. ‘Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.’

‘Yes, this is Mordor,’ said Frodo. ‘Just one of its works.’ 

By any rational reckoning, of course, Hobbiton is not “worse than Mordor” — as Sam of all people ought to know, having spent too much time in that blasted land. But you know what he means, you know where the feeling of revulsion comes from: his love of the Shire and his long-cherished hope to return to it, his unreflective expectation that upon his return it would be what he always knew it to be. But would he exchange his condition for that of a prisoner in one of Sauron’s towers, or an Orc soldier? Of course he wouldn’t. The Mordor System is darker and fouler at the center than at the periphery; but its logic is the same everywhere. And what has been learned about it near the center can be used near the periphery as well. That’s the theme of my essay on Albert Murray: white American Christians who think they’re suffering should take some lessons from their Black brothers and sisters, who know what real persecution is. If you feel threatened by the Beast, then maybe you should consult people who have spent generations in that Beast’s belly. 

If I had to choose between (a) raising my child in an environment of material and social comfort but also with the constant preaching of the dark gospel of metaphysical capitalism, and (b) raising my child in an environment of economic hopelessness and racial bigotry, in which he or she must spend a lifetime constantly at tiptoe stance — well, I would certainly choose the former. The first situation has dystopian elements, but also hopeful possibilities and some degree of freedom; the second is dystopian to its core. Those in the first situation can at least learn from the miseries of those in the second. 

Okay, back to Bob Marley. What does Babylon System do? It’s a vampire, sucking the blood of the sufferers; and it builds churches and universities for the express purpose of deceiving the people and keeping them enslaved. That is, to borrow the Marxist terms, it consists of an economic/political base and a cultural superstructure: As Louis Althusser said, it’s a model of political economy that sustains itself not simply by force, or the threat of force, but also through the work of ideological state apparatuses. Foucault borrowed this distinction when he coined the phrase “power-knowledge regime” — the hard power of the state-as-such and the soft power of its knowledge-disseminating apparatuses. 

Not a bad description of life under surveillance capitalism. — at least, once you start thinking about it. If you manage not to think about the costs, life in Babylon can be kinda pleasant at times, and questioning the System can feel risky. But once you start thinking … well, for one thing, to do do all this unpaid labor for social media and AI companies is to tread the winepress, but thirst.

So what do we do? Do we strive to sneak our young men and women into the ruling cadre? Do we pray for deliverance? Or do we do what Bob Marley says we should do: rebel? If we’re drawn to the last, then we have to ask another question: What might successful rebellion look like?