Imperialism in Code Geass

Imperialism in Code Geass

In Code Geass, the foremost enemy for the
heroic Japanese freedom fighters is the Holy Britannian Empire. The series could hardly
be called a developed political tract, but it holds strong in its anti-imperial principles
to the end, even as it takes its wildest turns. But one question is never actually raised:
what, exactly, is an empire? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,
an empire is a state which rules a wide reach of territories, whether through direct annexation
or through subtler means of exertion. Britannia certainly fits that definition, ruling foreign
regions from its home base in North America, usually in the form of direct rule by viceroys.
This definition doesn’t do much to tell us why anti-imperialism matters though. If
Britannia simply declared Japan its territory, but treated its people kindly, the resistance
to its rule would surely decline, and empires were fought against long before proper nationalism
arose in the 18th century. No, while logistical and philosophical issues may cause people
to dislike empires in the abstract, it’s a more direct form of oppression that leads
to armed anti-imperialist struggle as seen in Code Geass. So what is it about empires
that makes them oppress those they rule? To understand that, we’ll need to turn to
another definition of empire. It’s a bit wordy, but I’m partial to Lenin’s 1917
definition, which provides five features of imperialism. First, it occurs at a point where
production and capital are concentrated such that monopolies play a major role in economic
life. Second, it is marked by the merging of the previously separate spheres of the
banks and industries into one larger sphere of financial capital. Third, capital itself,
not just commodities, begins to be exported. Fourth, capitalists and their state proxies
begin to divide the world among themselves. Finally, it’s typified by the complete division
of the planet by the largest capitalist powers. In other words, in the real world, the greatest
imperial powers of the present-day are the United States, China, and Russia.
Code Geass is not particularly interested in monopoly capital or finance, it must be
said, but Lenin’s definition is still useful for understanding the show’s conception
of empire. First, Lenin establishes a clear aim of imperial domination and annexation
that goes beyond a simplistic explanation of “people and states wanting power.”
It’s certainly true that they do, but they want it for the same reason that capitalist
firms want greater profit and wider markets: because it allows them to outcompete their
enemies. Furthermore, Lenin provides a clear reason for the immiseration of the local populations,
that being their greater exploitation. By working imperial subjects, such as the Japanese
in Code Geass, well past the point that those in the imperial homeland would be worked,
and rewarding them with far less material wealth for their labor, those in the dominant
racial, ethnic, or national group can be pacified themselves. Sure, a native Britannian may
be exploited by their own boss, but they’re better off than an Eleven, aren’t they?
It’s the same logic that’s been used to pacify the white working class for centuries.
This dulls the potential for revolution and unrest in the home country, serving a social
benefit in addition to the economic power gained from exclusive markets and monopolies
on resources. To the capitalists in the metropole, it’s a win-win.
It would be fair to say, however, that Charles, the emperor himself, doesn’t care about
any of this. He wants to succeed in his weird, kind of stolen from Evangelion-ass plan, not
to empower Britannian capitalists or even to pacify revolution. And yes, that’s certainly
true. But one thing he also wants is peace. He conquers the world to achieve that through
supernatural means, but there’s an implicit suggestion that he’s also doing so because,
with no one left to fight, peace will be inevitable. This implication is, of course, carried through
later on by Lelouch, who violently completes his father’s attempt at world domination
as a means to peaceable unification through a less supernatural manner, though it’s
no more realistic. In other words, both of them conduct the business of empire with the
justification of human betterment and liberal values. And unfortunately, that’s how it’s
gone every single time it’s happened historically. America invaded Iraq with promises to bring
democracy. Britain occupied India for centuries while proclaiming that they were civilizing
the people and advancing their infrastructure. The Spanish conquered their way through the
Americas, with the help of intentional and unintentional biological warfare, with the
express purpose of Christianizing the heathens so that they wouldn’t be damned to hell.
While it would be easy to see these as merely self-serving claims made to justify blatantly
horrendous actions, it must be admitted that the imperialists themselves believed them,
at least some of the time. Charles and Lelouch aren’t all that different, when it comes
down to it, which is why I believe Lenin’s definition has merit here.
So, great, we’ve got a definition of empire now. Britannia is an empire because it’s
an advanced capitalist state which seeks to divide the world between itself and the other
strongest powers through monopolies, eventually giving even that up and taking the whole planet
into its own sphere. That raises two more questions though. Why, specifically, should
empire be resisted, and once that answer’s been provided, how should it be done?
Well, those living in Area 11, the former territory of Japan, certainly have a clear
reason to rebel. Britannia treats them as second-class citizens in the best of times
and barely human colonial subjects in the worst. While some of the empire’s colonies
have a degree of autonomy, this is limited, and any given Area will ultimately be directed
to act to the empire’s needs. Some might claim that this isn’t all bad for the colony.
In the annexation process, infrastructure will be built, and the region will become
economically and geopolitically secure relative to how it was while it was independent, as
Lelouch tells Kallen, at the cost of its pride. Those like Suzaku show that this is a viable
path for individual success. Work well in the colony, get yourself admitted as an honorary
Britannian, and tada. You may still be looked down upon a little, but what’s the ultimate
issue with this? The answer is twofold. First, this pathway
isn’t accessible to everyone. By virtue of creating a privileged strata of honorary
Britannians, an underprivileged part must also be maintained, or the whole system which
divides to conquer would fall apart. Second, the racism directed towards the Japanese or
any other group simply doesn’t go away. As Kallen’s episode with her mother demonstrates,
it’s impossible for even the best-off Japanese to separate themselves from their kin, or
to ignore the inferiority that Britannia seeks to ingrain deep within them. The racism is
too structurally upheld for all but the most craven to simply ignore it.
This brings me to the other theorist who seems vital to analyzing the anti-imperialism of
Code Geass: Frantz Fanon. In his book Black Skin, White Masks, he analyzes the way that
black people are formed as thinking subjects, using his practice as a psychoanalyst and
his knowledge of Hegelian dialectics, neither of which you need to know for this video.
Fanon focuses on the way in which the glorification of blackness is often a flipside of its alienation
by whites, and while he sees value in that glorification, he makes it clear that it must
be careful, as simply mirroring what your enemy is doing is not the path to liberation
and sometimes upholds the harmful attitudes that racism generates. Colonization, in Fanon’s
view, necessarily leads to an internalization of an inferiority complex, which comes about
from the process of being objectified, or made into an object to be acted upon rather
than a thinking subject capable of agency. While black people obviously think, and at
many times are treated as if they do, by being Othered their subjectivity is ignored. The
dehumanization process, after all, reduces other human beings to animals. In practical
terms, this often occurs through the demand that they work for the dominant group, or
the act of having a slur yelled at them. And this is certainly reflected in Code Geass.
Many of the Japanese have internalized the fact that they’re Elevens, working for the
Britannians not just because they’re forced to by the threat of violence, but due to being
convinced, ideologically, that they’re truly inferior. Both the revolutionaries and the
beaten-down have come into their perspective by being called Elevens. As Fanon says, the
black man is not just black but “black in relation to the white man.” In other words,
Elevens are created by the Britannians, and as long as they accept their place as Elevens,
they therefore cannot truly be free from Britannian rule, literally or psychologically.
So, they must resist, asserting themselves as culturally and politically Japanese by
throwing off the label of Eleven in a program of national liberation, which brings us to
the second question of how that’s to be conducted. One of Code Geass’ most fundamental
tensions is over the justification of violent acts for beneficial ends. Lelouch and the
Black Knights believe that terrorism can be righteous in certain situations, and that
if it’s conducted in order to prevent oppression that it’s correct, and it shouldn’t surprise
you to hear that I agree with that view. Suzaku and other honorary Britannians believe the
opposite, hoping that in working up the hierarchy of the conquering power, they can influence
the greater state to behave in a more benevolent manner. Frankly speaking, the show often treats
this idea as a joke. Suzaku is constantly disappointed in spite of his efforts, and
he’s ultimately unable to change things even after becoming one of Britannia’s finest
fighters. If his strategy were to ever work, it would take an extremely long time for true
equality to come about, and in that time many more Japanese would be crushed beneath the
heel of the imperial regime. At the same time, though, the Euphemia plot casts doubt on the
idea that Lelouch and his freedom fighters are wholly correct. After all, his pink-haired
half-sister was about to liberate Japan before the need for the show to keep airing caused
Lelouch’s Geass to go off, right? Well, that’s not totally correct. First,
Euphie intended to create a “Special Administrative Zone,” which is notably not an independent
sovereign state. Certainly, it would elevate the Japanese above their position as Elevens
and confer legal equality, but true autonomy would still be lacking. Besides, there’s
absolutely no solution for the other Areas in this plan, which the Black Knights recognize.
Indeed, while it’s clearly wrong when Lelouch causes Euphie to kill everybody, thus sabotaging
the whole project, it’s equally clear that the project never would’ve resulted in a
true liberation of the Japanese. The show is not so willing to come down on the terrorism
that Lelouch advocates that strongly — after all, it does eventually lead to a better world,
if an implausible one. Can the means be justified by the ends so
simply, though? Is violence so acceptable for liberation, revolution, and a world where
human flourishing can occur? Well, to answer that let’s return to Fanon, this time his
other major work The Wretched of the Earth. As he declares at the very start of the book,
“decolonization is always a violent event.” The show, as always, is not so interested
in precise economics, but it hardly hides the fact that Britannian elites have a vested
interest in maintaining Japan as their colony, and not solely for ideological reasons. Violence,
or at least the threat of it, is necessary to advance the aim of liberation, and even
the special zones were only proposed after the Black Knights made the threat of rebellion
far more pressing to the Britannians. Furthermore, Fanon’s emphasis on the role of guerilla
fighting in anti-colonial wars, drawing on his own experience while working towards Algerian
independence from France, aligns greatly with an approach that the series seems to respect.
The Black Knights eventually take up the approach of a classic military, but one of Japan’s
great assets in the struggle is the low-level resistance by ordinary Japanese which enable
successful guerilla combat. Without it, many of their important early battles would’ve
been lost. Violent struggle gets the goods. Fanon also warns against the so-called local
bourgeoisie, who can quickly slip in and take up the same position as that of the colonizer
once he’s been pushed out, and Code Geass, lacking any meaningful critique of capitalism,
fails to portray any caution in that regard. Similarly, it’s less concerned with the
catharsis created by violence against the oppressor, and if anything is skeptical of
the prospect of taking joy from the necessary violence of liberation, hence Lelouch’s
tragic fate rather than triumphant one. Overall, however, its position overlaps in many ways
with Fanon’s: revolutionary violence is required in order to eliminate the feelings
of inferiority generated by the colonial empire as well as its material oppression, as it
will not simply recede for moral reasons. For a series which goes in such interesting
directions, it’s got a remarkably developed view of anti-imperial politics.

32 thoughts on “Imperialism in Code Geass

  1. Interestingly enough, the fact that the Brittanian territories are constantly labeled as numbers instead of names is actually based on something the Japanese empire did to their conquered territories during World War II, giving them titles like area 5, Area 8, Area 11 and so on. Given that, it would not be in too difficult to get an interpretation that the Japanese resistance fighting Brittania represents modern Japan fighting against its imperialist past. After all, from the perspective of the modern day postwar Japanese, their imperial past is something they prided themselves on transcending, or at least perceive it that way. In fact it’s actually quite fitting that the writers would use the British Empire as a stand-in for the old imperialist Japan of World War II because as one writer once fittingly put it “Japan and Britain are often used as a mirror for each other.” For instance just as the Japanese use Britain as an allegory for themselves during World War II in this anime, The British have used Japan as an allegory for them to satire the social problems of 19th century Britain through Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado. How ironic that an anime and an opera would be a perfect example of my point about Japan and Britain often using each other as a mirror to self analyze. But back to my point about the whole world war two allegory, one of the places that got the worst of Japanese imperialism during the second world war was in Manchuria if you know your World War II history you will recognize some very disturbing parallels between Manchuria and area 11. For instance the Japanese kept control of the Manchurian population by selling opium, millions of people were deliberately turned into drug addicts as a result eerily similar to the Brittanians deliberately trying to get the Japanese people hooked on the fictional drug called Refrain. I truly believe that the writers intended for area 11 to basically be a way to show their Japanese viewers what it was like for Japan’s conquered subjects during World War II by putting them in their perspective by showing what it would feel like if they were on the receiving end of the suffering that their country once inflicted on the peoples of Asia, especially in Manchuria, Area 11 is an allegory for Japanese controlled Manchuria, I truly believe that.

  2. I think you make that more complicated as it is. You don't need any kind of monetary injustice to get an inferiority / superiority complex out of racial identification and in the end that is all it needs to lead to the situation depicted in Code Geass. Maybe it would need more triggers after humanity has some kind of alien contact, but the way humanity is, until a bigger 'other' appears racial and cultural lines will be enough for enough people to react the way to reach the inferior / superior struggle.

  3. Russia is not a imperialist power, since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia have less gross domestic product than Italy, maintaining soviet military only allow to defend his allies against USA imperialism like in the Syrian civil war, but Russia don't have the economy to control the laws of other countries, the European Union even if is not completely unified still have common capitalist interest and the economic power to force all north africa to enforce the prefered immigration policies.
    USA China and EU are the real imperialist powers.

  4. I guess it's worth underlining that while Lelouch himself did share with Charles the fact that neither of them were interested in the empire as their personal end goal, Emperor Charles still oversaw a military expansion and direct incorporation through conquest of new territories into the Britannian colonial structure over the years. That had significant and terrible effects for the oppressed population, as we know from both the show and real history. Emperor Lelouch actually starts his short rule by freeing the numbers/Areas, which isn't fully focused on, but we clearly see Japan gets its freedom back and the entire colonial exploitation system is presumably undermined elsewhere too. I suppose it's a variant of de-colonization. I wish the show had spent more time on these details, but it's still something that furthers the anti-imperial ideas of the series. Then Lelouch does force the rest of the world to submit to him, for a brief moment, but it's more of a performative tactic by establishing a common threat, which collapses once he is dead, rather than any serious restoration of the old imperial system. He makes no attempt to re-colonize the world during his reign. On another note, some critics occasionally come out of the show with the idea that all nations disappeared and their borders were erased in exchange for an eternal peace, but that's not true. It's more like the experience of having a shared enemy allowed people to temporarily put aside their differences and negotiate. We see the effects are positive, in the short term, but nothing says that such a thing will last forever or that everyone gave up their own interests and identities.

  5. The difference between Capitalism and Socialism is simple.

    Capitalism starts out with the promises of Democracy, freedom of speech, equality, human rights. In the beginning it may even provide on these promises, but eventually it has to take more and more of those things away in order to sustain itself and have control over sections of the world until the inevitable collapse happens. It convinces everyone that everything is perfect and amazing right now, even as things continue to get worse and worse. It is simply utopian in nature, always blaming something else for its own problems.

    Socialism starts out with the knowledge that we are not at those ideals yet, and that we must work towards them piece by piece. It recognizes that the fight will be arduous, but encourages the people to keep going in even the worst of times. It has to take away various individual Liberties that Capitalism prides itself on having in order to maintain the collective society and bring down the enemies of the common good. But as the fight continues on the closer and closer to the great future we work towards until we become finally free as a working class, or we get all the progress we made reversed by the reactionaries we weren't able to get rid of. (Deng Xiaoping, Nikita Khrushchev)

  6. Why would the show care about addressing "capitalism"? It's literally irrelevant. This video was somewhat good until you started going full marxist hurr durr capitalism bad bro.

  7. honestly, could you change the thumbnail to be something that doesn't spoil one of season 1's most shocking moments? i know you discuss spoilers in this, but it'd be nice if subscribers of yours that ain't seen this show wouldn't have a spoiler show up in their sub feed.

  8. I disagree that violence is absolutely necessary for decolonisation.

    What is necessary is to make colonisation expensive to the capitalist interests of the Empire, or to make independence more profitable.
    The example is the British Empire in India. They were exhausted by two world wars, and modern industry made India's cotton farming irrelevant to the British economy.
    So when faced with a Non-Violent independence movement, the British conceded.
    Would the British have decolinised if they hadn't fought the two world wars? It depends on how the british economy would have fared through the great depression.
    I believe that eventually the British would have left, just more slowly. That might have mitigated the disaster of the Raj's partition, and the thousands of deaths it caused.

  9. Interesting points, very similar to something I wrote about 11 years ago back in community collage. In the end though i had trouble with the idea that if you simply break up the larger more militaristic nation states, that peace would inevitable follow, even if you show the people in those states why what they had been doing was wrong. Humanity has been classifying groups as superior and inferior for all of recorded time, and as we have seen just removing an oppressor wont remove that habit. It would be needed to be worked at, even as you throw off the yoke of an oppressive empire. For example in India, after the British were removed tensions flared between Hindus and Muslims.
    Simply removing oppressors will not create a more peaceful equitable system without work to integrate any minority groups within a larger territory and push for the acceptance of those groups. The reason Japan would have avoided this issue mostly, is due to the fact that its population is almost entirely from one ethnic group, which is only become they killed off or forced intermarriage of the Ainu, the original inhabitants of the islands.
    You can not just look at resistance to a empire as just the goal of removing it. You also need to think of what will replace it, and how you can avoid the risks of sectarian strife or a rising tide of nationalism, which can lead to them becoming a local empire, though conquest of their neighboring states.

  10. Great video and a really accessible way to introduce the concept of imperialism to an audience though explaining it's representation in a fictional work, especially as it's genuinely relevant to the work in question unlike other attempts I've seen where the youtuber is clearly projecting these concepts onto a show where they don't really exist or at best only very superficially, in order to explain the ideas. which makes for a less engaging and more dishonest experience.

    One issue I would like to take as a Marxist regarding your lengthy quotation of Lenin in his famous work, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. There are few works that have done more to confuse the question of imperialism than this work by Lenin and that comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the work itself.

    This short work by Lenin was never intended to be regarded as a serious contribution to the actual Marxist understanding of imperialism from an actual economic standpoint, in fact this is spelled out quite clearly in the full title of the work which even you don't reference when you list it as a source, the full title being, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline. The work by Lenin is, frankly, economically flawed as Lenin adopts an 'underconsumptionist' position to explain the driving economic motivation of imperialism to avoid crisis, rather than a fall in the rate of profit, which slows investment, as Marx outlined in Volume 3 of Capital, that was not widely read or even understood in Lenin's time, most Marxists simply being content to settle with the extraction of surplus value from the working class which Marx outlined in Volume 1 of Capital, as all they needed to know to see capitalism as an inherently exploitative system rather than understanding crisis theory, which as I've said, Marx only really got into in Volume 3.

    Why is this important? Excepting an underconsumptionist view as the cause of capitalist crisis leaves the back door open theoretically to revise Marxism in a reformist direction as, if the inability of the working class to buy back the good and services produced is the sole cause of capitalist crisis as an underconsumptionist view argues, then raising wages and or lowering the spending burden the working class though service provision provided though taxation of the capitalist class would in itself avoid crisis and lead to permanent growth, rending revolution not simply obsolete but counter-productive. This in fact was in large part the framework on which the original 'revisionists' in the German Social Democratic Party, led by Bernstein and his series of articles in the late 1890's that were later published as the book Evolutionary Socialism, developed their theories in opposition to Marxism and later still found their expression in outside of Marxism altogether in liberal Keynesian economic theory. While Lenin was no revisionist and came out as a bitter opponent of Bernstein and his reformist positions at the time, he lacked the ability to really challenge him theoretically and could only offer a dogmatic defense of revolutionary Marxism from a political standpoint while ignoring the more serious economic points Bernstein and the others raised in a kind of cognitive dissonance. To be clear I'm not singling out Lenin for serious criticism here, as I related near the start, Volume 3 of Capital was barley read at the time and getting hold of books and material and study was difficult, you could not just go on the Marxist internet Archive like today.

    So back to imperialism, what happened? Well back in 1915, the Bolshevik Marxist theorist Bukharin intended to published his book, Imperialism and the World Economy as a serious and fundamental contribution to the Marxist theory of imperialism, grounded as it was in a real understanding of economics. The work was read by Lenin, who provided an introduction, however it never saw the light of day until 2-years later due to a series of unfortunate complications, the manuscript was sent to the wrong publishers and later confiscated by the censers etc.

    Due to this set back Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism quickly to fill this gap, crudely summering various theoretical points he remembered from Bukharin's work but falling back on his own, more limited, understanding of Marxist theory for parts of it not to mention the fact that the main aim of this work was not to really provide a comprehensive understanding of imperialism but to draw out some of the key political conclusions to rally the European working class against, in short it was a limited, propagandist work, written to intervene politically in the growing opposition to the first world war and clarify Marxists opposition to imperialism, it was only the status Lenin gained after the October revolution that ended up elevating this book to be given a level of importance and significance it was never intended to have and this only worsened exponentially after Lenin's death and the personality cult of Lenin was turned into a secular religion.

    This is not to say that Lenin's book is without value, quite the opposite, just as intended it works well as a popular outline and that is a testament to it's enduring popularity, but after the general introduction to the subject the work provides, anyone who wishes to seriously advance the Marxist analysis of imperialism should really aquatint themselves with the original, superior and economically consistent work by Bukharin that Lenin badly plagiarized else they run the risk of being shown up by more skilled political opponents who can pick apart the more glaring flaws in Lenin's work and thus undermine Marxism as a viable theory.

  11. Do you know why so many isekai stories are sympathetic to imperialism? I've been puzzling over that for a while.

  12. IMO 1981 mecha anime "Fang of the Sun Dougram" touches certain aspects of imperialism as Lenin defined it, as it draws influences from IRL anti-colonial struggles, guerrilla wars. Characters on both side of the conflict explain their motives (one side telling why they need to maintain to status quo and other side telling why they need to change it, with some economic aspects). It even has anime Che Guevara with eye patch as a side character!

  13. This is easily by far your best video. Wow, more content like this please.
    My only critique is that I don’t see China as an imperialist power.
    Namely because of their support for African nations
    Aside from that is the help we have received from them on the whole outbreak.
    China is still on the Marxist-Leninist path.

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