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.