In the vast cultural, economic, and political space of America, there is, on the one hand, the government, and on the other there is what governs us. There’s a lot of room between the strictures of law and the practicalities of daily life—a space occupied by family, bureaucrats, preachers, landlords, and doctors, by love, by money, or that thing you feel in the absence of money, by corporations, even by art. We can’t speak of empires today in the way that Edward Gibbon might. Even the new Star Wars is post-imperial. There is no monolith, no American Empire that provides all the rules, sets all the standards—what we have instead is only America, messy pastiche. So what could we rightly call a modern empire? A business, or a church, if it’s considerably big, or a natural resource, with its attendant corporate and environmental concerns? They can be powerful enough, and more than willing enough to wield that power. But this raises another question: Should we even give them that moniker? To crown a Wall Street tycoon or Silicon Valley technocrat an emperor might imbue them with power they don’t otherwise have. An exercise in rhetoric, maybe—but then again, how we define something influences how we see it, and, in turn, how we behave toward it.
In this special issue of Guernica, the third of four made possible through your generous support of our Kickstarter campaign, we offer a few panels from this sprawling imperial mosaic—its victims and beneficiaries, the merciful and the mercenary. You won’t find these empires on a map, tucked as they are behind the names of can’t-say-I’ve-been-there towns. Be on the lookout instead for an office complex, someplace awash in the soothing hum of data centers and microwave transmitters. Their borders are the perimeter of the boardroom table, the cut of a sharp suit. If, that is, you decide they exist at all.
In “The Chicken Competition,” Christopher Leonard documents the cutthroat practice major poultry companies have created to maximize their yields: pitting their contract farmers against each other in shadowy tournaments. “Poultry companies say the tournament incentivizes farmers to work hard, which might make sense if they had any control over their operations.” But, Leonard reports, they don’t, driving many out of business. Big Pharma, too, has gone to damaging lengths to maximize profits. Shannon Brownlee and Dr. Vikas Saini of the Lown Institute, in a conversation with Guernica’s Grace Bello, describe an industry that encourages the lucrative practice of overtreating patients, whatever the medical risks. “Everywhere I looked, I saw examples of unnecessary care, hospitalization, or treatments that weren’t backed by good science,” Brownlee says. “American healthcare, far from being the best in the world, is outrageously expensive, wasteful, and dangerous.”
Corporate behemoths aren’t alone in profiting off their own influence. Figures like Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, and other pastors of black megachurches have grown rich on the prosperity gospel, preaching big donations to their churches in promise of future divine rewards. Guernica’s Meara Sharma speaks to Anthony Pinn, scholar of African-American religion, about these spiritual, and financial, empires, and the “deeply screwed up” people who run them. Art critic Ben Davis also follows the money, in a conversation with Guernica’s Alex Zafiris, to an art world that is “both entangled with and somehow autonomous from the ordinary, grubby life of capitalism,” and much more complex than the caricature of a playground for the rich. And Rob Kardashian, black sheep of the Hollywood family, is, too, more than he seems. Jessica Machado unpacks his role in the Kardashian clan, an “entire empire based on keeping up with appearances,” and explores his refusal to play along.
Richard Price, recounting the history of the New York City Housing Authority, reminds us that “in defiance of their current hell-hole reputation,” the NYCHA had a 160,000-family waiting list for its apartments. It’s an organization that holds more immediate power over a larger group of people than any single body in the city. But rather than wield that power, the NYCHA has retreated into its own bureaucracy. In the crumbling halls of its housing empire, life goes on without it. The defense industry has also turned its back on old stomping grounds, Laura Gottesdiener reports. Where contractors like DynCorp once gave logistical support to American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, they now support the oil boom in North Dakota. It’s a strange case of our would-be empire abroad come home to roost, writes Gottesdiener, “an oil boom that’s built, powered, and protected to an unprecedented degree by former service members and current defense companies—all on US soil.”
Also rising in the dusty American center, south of the North Dakota oilfields, are the data centers of the National Security Agency. Henry Peck speaks to Ben Wizner, the privacy advocate and legal advisor to Edward Snowden, about the attraction new surveillance technology holds for those with the authority to use it and the future of privacy. And Guernica’s Ed Winstead questions the continuing influence of the talking heads on TV news. Plus, new fiction by Constance Squires and Karen E. Bender, poetry by Danniel Schoonebeek and Rachel Richardson, and a rundown of American empires by the numbers.