ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-031-9. “Capitalism – A Ghost Story” by Arundhati Roy was published by Verso in 2014. Anyone watching Roy in her talks given in 2002 will be instantly struck at how important it is to not judge this book by its cover. She is a remarkable person – so petite, almost fragile – dressing in her homeland’s archetypal Sari (when she chooses) but equally comfortable in western T-shirt and jeans. You read her words and you imagine a giant of a woman. Anything but. She writes tirelessly about politics and empire yet her words come across more as poetry: small vignettes of life under the yoke of an expansive neo-liberal system. A vision of Orwell’s crushing boot eternally upon the face of humanity. Now she returns home to write about the ill-fortunes of modern India. What she uncovers is so disturbing even her own Government has threatened to arrest her. Exactly what is it that the Indian State and Establishment has to fear from the stories of one so slight?
The last time we reviewed a work by Roy it was her 2006 book “The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire” which described global trends around the time of the war in Iraq. It says a lot that “A Ghost Story” is a book jostling for space along side Pilger, Chomsky et al down at our local book store. For in it there is nothing but the descriptions of internal Indian politics. What is it about Roy that makes her work so readable to a wider audience – most of whom, like me, have no idea about the people and events she describes? Hers is a howl of anguish from the sub-continent so loud that it can be heard around the world – if you choose to listen. What is happening in India is a dystopian horror story – at least from Roy’s point of view. We are all ill-prepared for this story if we only understand India through the culture of Bollywood movies. This is not going to be a happy, comfortable read for most of us. This is disturbing.
Roy’s portrayal of modern India is closer that of feudal Afghanistan. The state has become an instrument of large corporations. Land and minerals are being stolen illegally from the people that own them and given to large private companies. Corruption is rife. Money can buy you anything including the army and police when you need a few heavies to do your dirty work. This machinery crushes any dissent. The dissenters in this case mainly being the rural poor who get in the way. Millions have fled to the forests to take up arms. It all sounds like the kind of cowboy/gangster capitalism that we witnessed in Russia after the fall of Communism there. The similarities continue…
In the political sphere a well connected elite rub shoulders with billionaires who pay for their services. The country has a democracy but it increasingly resembles the dysfunctional kind that we witness in the west.
“The noisier the carnival around elections, the less sure we are that democracy really exists.”
The media is in the hands of a tiny few who can tell the electorate what to do and who to blame when it all goes wrong. Anti-Islamic pogroms result and thousands are murdered. One wonders if this is a nation that might have been better under old Imperial rule where the East India Company was in charge. It seems nothing really changed. The racism of the British has simply been replaced by the fascism of the Hindu caste.
The pictured painted here is eternally grim. Anybody who resists the machinery of the modern Indian corporate-state is labelled a “terrorist”. How convenient. How familiar. Such resistance could be an action that few of us would define as violent, like farming or just protesting. There is nothing here that the elite of the West does not aspire to. India today is a foretaste of what the elite would turn Britain into if they had their way: a brutal Hobbesian conflict of all against all. The rich few will sit in their high castles and profit from the wars and poverty that sucks the wealth from the pockets of the people and leads to mass impoverishment & suffering. This is the vision of a modern feudal system where the Corporations run the government for their own ends. Modern India is an experiment in extreme neo-liberal dogma and there is no happy ending in sight.
Roy rages against it all. Her pages drip with sarcasm and bitterness. Her blood is at boiling point and she despairs and what is being done to her country. Hers is one of so few voices calling to us from the sub-continent. The government there is so desperate to keep a lid on the pressure cooker that they regularly arrest, hassle, deport or worse – kill journalists who don’t tell the outside world the happy story the state prefers. No wonder we do not know what is going on. It takes a very courageous voice indeed, and a very loud one, to make the truth know. Roy’s roar is so very loud yet each story is told in the hushed tones of a woman in mourning for her nation and its downtrodden people.
She doesn’t just level her sights at the corrupt State/Corporate nexus. She also has it in mind to attack the NGOs that she believes are third party instruments of the same capitalist system behind the madness of her Government. She sees these organisations as not truly impartial – a kind of modern cultural imperialism importing Western values to the nation that bought us Ghandi. Any civil sector organisation that did not peddle Western-friendly ideology found themselves de-funded and marginalised.
“Gradually, one particular imagination – a brittle, superficial pretence of tolerance and multiculturalism (that morphs into racism, rabid nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, or war-mongering Islamophobia at a moment’s notice) under the roof of a single overarching, very unplural economic ideology – began to dominate the discourse. It did so to such an extent that it ceased to be perceived as an ideology at all. It became the default position, the natural way to be.”
Remember this is Roy’s India but this could be lifted from Owen’s “The Establishment” or anything by Chomsky. It is the way of the world. We lost our pluralism and pursued dogma. Likewise Roy criticises the human rights industry with this observation
“The narrow focus of human rights enables an atrocity-based analysis in which the larger picture can be blocked out and both parties in a conflict [..] can both be admonished as Human Right Violators. The land grab by mining corporations [..] then become footnotes with very little bearing on the discourse.”
Although her observations remain valid this scatter-gun approach in blaming near-enough everyone for India’s dilemma is a prism through which we must view Roy’s howl of anguish. I am not sure it enhances her argument but we clearly see why she feels this way, even if we disagree. Roy goes onto use the example of the Indian feminist movement to illustrate her point suggesting that you cannot sanitise women’s rights to ignore the environment in which protest and injustice arise. She believes these are all just off-shoots of the right and proper anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements. Somehow if they ignore these roots then they are a betrayal of what they should be standing for. This is a very peculiar and narrow focus. People should arise and protest against injustice using any framework that works for them. Results matter. In this case we see only Roy’s own ideology clashing with State-sanctioned dogma. Which to choose?
Of course the big funders are conservative in nature. This should not be of surprise to anyone. Wealth distorts reality around it. They get the truth they pay for. It may not be quite the one you start with yet this argument seems to boil down to the observation in science that the measurement always changes what is measured. It is a paradox. If the very poor had the money to make the world in their reality then they would not longer be poor. QED – it is a rich man’s world. What we lack in Roy’s perspective is a real alternative system. Even in her closing speech to the Occupy movement (in which she lists her demands) she comes across as vague & ill-considered. Would the world really be better off if a private company was not allowed to own interests in two unrelated industries? Would that really be healthy? The anger is clear but it doesn’t really bear any useful fruit. No roadmap results. Just despair. She concludes
“Having worked out how to manage governments, political parties, elections, courts, the media, and liberal opinion, the neo-liberal establishment faced one more challenge: how to deal with growing unrest, the threat of “people’s power”. How do you domesticate it? How do you turn protesters into pets? How do you vacuum up people’s fury and redirect it into blind alleys?”
Roy goes onto explain how NGOs like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations de-radicalised the Black civil rights movement:
“Martin Luther King Jr made the forbidden connections between Capitalism, Imperialism, Racism, and the Vietnam War [..] his memory became toxic, a threat to public order. Foundation and corporations worked hard to remodel his legacy to fit a market-friendly format.”
Once again we see the radical views of Roy distorting the meaning of Capitalism and “markets”. These are not the problem. The free markets and Capitalism version we have chosen is vastly different from that envisioned by Adam Smith. It is a distinction that Chomsky recognises and maybe it is a lesson that Roy should take on. Again though, the gist of her argument is not wrong, yet it takes her nowhere. Of course these monied organisations sanitised the Black Panthers. What else would they do? Water runs downhill. This anger in Roy’s argument resembles that counter-realism of Media Lens in the UK who attack the liberal media for not being too left-wing enough.
Moving on to India’s relationship with the USA we get this moment of divine poetry:
“It means an unequal partnership in which India is being held close in a bear hug and waltzed around the floor by a partner who will incinerate her the moment she refuses to dance.”
Amen to that. Then this via a Marxist analysis leading to a resource-limits-based conclusion:
“Capitalism’s real “gravediggers” may end up being its own delusional cardinals, who have turned ideology into faith. Despite their strategic brilliance, they seem to have trouble grasping a simple fact: Capitalism is destroying the planet. The two old tricks that dug it out of past crises – War and Shopping – simply will not work.”
Like her previous work this is a short book: just a collection of short essays. Of the 100 pages about half consist of the central “Ghost Story” section. The other half represents an array of very short essays concerning quite parochial issues albeit with a certain global resonance. You will garner what you need from the first half of the book, the rest is set dressing and filler. This doesn’t mean you are sold short. The filler is illuminating in the insight it gives us to modern India but it delves into the minutae detail of certain court cases and local scandals that could be repeated in any country around the world. India is truly internationalised. Their forms of injustice, corruption and scandal are our own. Their police can hang the innocent and fabricate the evidence just like the cops in Atlanta or Birmingham. India merely treads a path that the West has beaten before. We are shocked but should not be. Their anti-corruption laws become themselves so corrupted that they no longer prosecute the true perpetrators of the crime. The guilty are the politicians, not the corporations. In Britain we have lobbying rules that target charities rather than the wealthy lobbyists. Insanity is an international disease. The fact that Roy could be describing almost any modern Western Nation is no credit to any of us. Not at all.
Her strident views about the Indian occupation of Kashmir has landed this Book Prize winning author in hot water. Although the State has not yet quite summoned the cowardice to throw her into gaol there are many nationalists in India who are happy to hate Arundhati Roy and will protest outside her home. This reveals another fact about this little lady of India – she must also be incredibly brave. Sure her literary notoriety helps shield her from the worst of the injustices but this can be of little comfort in a nation where women have turned up raped, mutilated and dead in road-side ditches for doing a lot less. For Roy is a striking anomaly in a system of State-Corporate oppression. She is a thorn in the side of their establishment and we are sure they would be glad to be rid of her. This troublesome author is remarkable just because she exists in the first place. She just shouldn’t be. In this fact alone we revel in her works.
This is a little gem from a jewel that India should be celebrating.