Capitalism book cover

Arundhati Roy’s essays depict Indian society in all its extreme inequality, but also show how some of the poorest people in the world have been fighting back, finds Dominic Alexander

Capitalism: A Ghost Story

Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Haymarket 2014), 112pp.

The title of this collection of essays might give the impression of a whimsical tone, but just as when Marx evokes the supernatural, Roy is pointing to the deadly serious, even horrifying, spectacles produced by modern capitalist society. As in Marx, there is the sense in which capitalism is able to hide its true workings, and so the ghosts here are, as much anything else, the poor, banished from the superficial façade that constitutes official society in today’s capitalism. There are profound resonances to the use of the phrase ‘ghost story’ here, but Roy does not labour any analogies, allowing the reader to make the appropriate connections, while she details the hard reality of Indian politics and society.

India has of late been lauded as a model of the successful neoliberal economy for the developing world, and the growth of its middle class has been presented as a proof of the progressive power of capitalism to improve human life. The reality of the situation is grotesque, as Roy points out that ‘in a nation of 1.2 billion, India’s one hundred richest people own assets equivalent to one-fourth of the GDP’ (p.7). There are certainly grand displays of neoliberal culture in the form of corporate games and sponsored literary festivals, but as with the Commonwealth Games, ‘laws were passed that made the poor vanish like laundry stains’ (p.2). The neoliberal success story is a riot of corporate interests in an ‘era of the Privatisation of Everything’ and it is this process which ‘has made the Indian economy one of the fastest growing in the world’.

The eminently modern strategy of privatisation is matched with a form of the strategy of primitive accumulation, which itself marked the rise of capitalism throughout the world; the dispossession of the poor. In India, as elsewhere, this often means the corporate takeover of land for the extraction of minerals, a process which in turn frequently consumes vast amounts of water needed by local people. Also involved in dispossession are ‘dams, highways, car manufacture, chemical hubs and Formula One racing’. All this is done supposedly in the public interest, and with the assurance that it will bring jobs, but these never arrive, so the displaced are shunted into the ranks of the reserve army of labour. Roy notes, ‘the sanctity of private property never applies to the poor’ (p.10).

Driven into the cites, this means the poor being denounced as criminals, demonstrating according to one government minister ‘a kind of behaviour which is unacceptable to modern cities’, or in reality the kind of presence that offends middle class sensibilities (p.2). The miracle of neoliberal capitalism has resulted in ‘the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains, and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed’ (p.8). Those schemes with which neoliberals congratulate themselves with their concern for the poor, such as microfinance, turn out to be responsible, in just one instance, for hundreds of suicides (p.27). The polarisation of a society between a narrow class of the super-rich, and the millions of apparently superfluous, certainly denigrated, poor is the starting point for Arundhati Roy’s title essay in this collection. The rest of the piece unpicks how a society this divided maintains the fiction of modern progress.

Roy describes what amounts to a war on the poor. State governments sign MOUs (memorandums of understanding) with corporations, delivering mineral rights in particular. These agreements are enforced by violence, as in the case of the Bastar steel plant, where a group called the Salwa Judum appeared which ‘turned out to be a ground-clearing operation, funded and armed by the government and subsidised by mining corporations’ (p.12). This is not by any means a unique episode, and cover for these corporate vigilantes is given by the government’s war on the Maoist guerrillas. At another Tata steel plant, police ‘opened fire on villagers who had gathered there to protest what they felt was inadequate compensation for their land. Thirteen people, including one policeman, were killed and thirty-seven injured’ (p.12). The interdependence of the government and corporate interests, enforced by state and extra-state violence, creates what Roy refers to as ‘militarised states’, such as Manipur and Kashmir ‘where people can be killed merely for protesting power cuts’ (p.15).

The scale of the state violence Roy describes is astonishing, but she is not less pointed when explaining how the Indian middle class is convinced of the justice, or at least the necessity, of all this support for the forces of progress. The focus thus turns to the spectacle of politics and the corporate media, and she notes that the ‘noisier the carnival around elections, the less sure we are that democracy really exists’ (p.11). Roy’s discussion here is at once very particular to India, while also being applicable to almost anywhere in the world at this stage in the development of a world-wide corporate media and political culture.

In this way the title, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, performs another unstated function, which is to point out that, although the main subject of these essays is India, the dynamics and contradictions being explored have universal significance. Capitalism is worldwide, and while it always finds distinct forms in each region and state, there are very clear continuities and repeating patterns across the capitalist world. Reading the account of India resonates with other political hypocrisies, media distortions, and victimisations of the poor and minorities that occur, perhaps in different guises, in the West also. Without needing to state all this, Roy lets the reader find her deeper argument about the political moments on which her focus rests.

Certain kinds of discourse are able to move back and forth from the West to India. This is exemplified in Roy’s observations about a literary festival in India, sponsored by Tata Steel, among other corporations also associated with the violence just described: ‘The enemies of free speech were the supposedly murderous Muslim mobs, who, the festival organisers told us, could have even harmed the schoolchildren gathered there’ (p.19). Given the context of the massacres of Indian Muslims only a few years before, this is nauseating. Nonetheless, hypocrisy of this kind is very reminiscent of those self-important Western narratives about human rights coming from the same people who support or engage in drone attacks, illegal ‘rendition’, and the host of crimes and deceptions prompted by the global war on terror.

The origins of neoliberal media and intellectual culture is just as rooted in the West as is the rest of capitalism. This brings Roy to explore the origins of the attempt to control politics and intellectual life by corporate foundations, such as the Ford Foundation or the Aspen Institute. These networks of elite opinion are one of the means by which ruling classes, national and international, quite openly create a ruling consensus, and define the terms in which politics can be discussed. As Roy says, ‘there is nothing secret, satanic or Freemason-like about this arrangement. It is not very different from the way corporations use shell companies and off-shore accounts to transfer and administer their money – except that the currency is power, not money’ (p.25).

The misdirection of middle-class discontent is one of the accomplishments of the foundations to which Roy draws attention. In India, the Magsayay Emergent Leadership Award, established by the Ford Foundation in 2000, is prestigious ‘among artists, activists and community workers’. Moreover, ‘it has become a gentle arbiter of what kind of activism is “acceptable” and what is not’ (pp.28-9). Thus anti-corruption movements can have great traction, as they accord with certain notions of ‘good governance’ and human rights that are promulgated from the imperial centre. These mass events, despite their much vaunted popular appearance, are not real challenges to any aspect of neoliberalism or particular corporate interests, let alone to capital as such. Roy’s discussion brings to mind other parallels such as the so-called colour revolutions in ex-Soviet countries, and more recent examples, such as the maverick politics of the Beppe Grillo party in Italy, or the Maidan movement in Ukraine.

The Indian example, which appears more than once in these essays, is the anti-government corruption movement of Anna Hazare. This did not address any of the problems of the poor stemming from neoliberal and militarised governance in India, but instead ‘its principal media backers’ turned the emphasis on further restricting the powers of government to act in the economy, and for ‘more privatisation’ (p.29). Remarkably, the Jan Lokpal Bill that Hazare advocates ‘is a draconian anticorruption law, in which a panel of carefully chosen people will administer a giant bureaucracy, with thousands of employees, with the power to police everybody from the Prime Minister … down to the lowest government official.’ The potential for this to turn into a corporate friendly and deadly anti-democratic power is stark. Roy writes: ‘Two oligarchies, instead of one’ (p.51).

The state of India, and indeed the world, as Roy paints it, is undeniably bleak, but these essays are by no means a counsel of despair, nor are they in any way the sort of screed that encourages passivity in the reader, weighed down by the overwhelming impression of ruling-class power. On the contrary, the contradictions in the ruling powers are exposed, and their actually tenuous real grasp of events arises clearly from the argument. Moreover, the fizzing outrage Roy communicates will surely be a spur to her readers. If nothing else because, despite everything that has divided and undermined the proletariat over recent decades, ‘all over the world it is fighting back’. Moreover: ‘In India the poorest people in the world have fought back to stop some of the richest corporations in their tracks’ (p.45).

As well as being a finely layered denunciation of capitalism and power in India, these essays also contain vignettes from the struggles of these poorest people. Arundhati Roy’s brilliance as a political essayist lies not just in the precision and elegance of her style and wit, or her analytical clarity, alongside much else, but in the sense that the writing itself is an active part of the struggles and movements she reports. This is a short but excellent collection, and it can be hoped that it will be read widely.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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