Review by Jon P. Dorschner
Capitalism (A Ghost Story) by Arundhati Roy, Haymarket Books: Chicago, Illinois, 2014, ISBN 978-160846-385-5, 128 pp., $14.95 (Paperback), $9.99 (Kindle).
Time Magazine recently named Arundhati Roy, a leading Indian intellectual and social critic, as one of the most 100 most influential people on earth. World renowned for her novel The God of Small Things, Roy became embroiled in social activism and turned away from fiction. Quite prolific, she has authored many titles dealing with India and the world from a far left perspective. Roy is an associate of noted American radical Noam Chomsky, and her views mirror Chomsky’s in many ways. Like Chomsky, she writes long theoretical books, and shorter works that are collections of articles, essays and interviews. Capitalism (A Ghost Story) follows this format, consisting of six essays dealing with a variety of Indian subjects, and a Preface and Afterward.
The essays are short, hard-hitting and very polemical. Conservative critics often equate radical leftists with “communists” or “Marxists.” This one-sided view reflects their ignorance. Roy (like Chomsky) is a proponent of a “Third Way,” that rejects both Capitalism and Communism. They call for a reconstruction of society along cooperative lines to eliminate exploitation and provide maximum freedom. Like many leftists, Roy’s principal concern is with distributive justice. This is currently a hot topic in a United States witnessing a growing economic divide. Roy’s critics fail to comprehend her essential anti-Communism. Roy entertains no illusions regarding the totalitarian nature of Communist regimes throughout history, stating she would be the first executed by a hardline Communist regime.
When analyzing the work of Third Way writers like Roy, it is important to keep in mind that they are currently attacking Capitalism and Neo-Liberal economics with great vitriol because they dominate the international order. Roy lives in a society dominated by the Capitalist/Neo-liberal package. If she lived under a Communist regime, she would be protesting against Communism with just as much vitriol.
This book is relevant to those of us who deal with South Asia, because it provides a far-left perspective on Indian events. Those without extensive South Asian background may find themselves unfamiliar with some of the issues she addresses. This should not prevent them from learning about the concerns of India and its people.
Roy’s principal points are apparent from the first page. The neo-liberal economic package is essentially anti-Democratic. Its principal intent is to enrich a tiny minority, while dispossessing many millions. Neo-liberals are essentially deceptive, claiming to embrace human rights and democracy, while establishing a plutocracy. Neo-liberalism is responsible for a tiny group taking ownership of the Indian economy and political system. The Indian ruling elite is happy to support human rights such as free speech, so long as there is no challenge to the neo-liberal economic order. When the poorest of the poor organize and protest their situation, Indian elites are swift to crush them using the full power of the state. India is becoming militarized and Hinduized, with a plethora of new security forces created to crush dissent and Hinduism used as a tool to manipulate the masses.
“Capitalism: A Ghost Story,” is the first essay. She asks why “in a nation of 1.2 billion, India’s one hundred richest people own assets equivalent to one-fourth of the GDP.”1 She then catalogs the effect of neo-liberal development on India, “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.”2 According to Roy, the “gush up gospel” is the whole point, as it proclaims that “the more you have, the more you can have.” Massive corporations, both multinational and domestic, are the principal agents of the concentration of wealth, and use their influence over India’s political system to ensure illegal corporate access to precious land and resources, resulting in the dispossession of millions. Whole scale “privatization,” has spurred massive corruption. To Roy, Maoist extremism, in the form of Naxalite insurgencies, is a response to this repression. She charges that the Indian government, currently under the control of the Congress Party, is preparing massive military operations involving paramilitaries, the Army and the Air Force, throughout the “red corridor” in Central India. The intention is to wipe out the Naxalites. While not a Maoist and not a supporter of violence and totalitarianism, Roy opines that without the Naxalites, the oppression of tribals and dalits (formerly untouchables) in India’s rural heartland and forest areas would have proceeded unnoticed.
Written before the current Indian elections, she excoriates the man most expect to be India’s next Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. She describes Modi’s makeover from a Hindu extremist guilty of massive human rights abuse, to the darling of neo-liberals. Roy claims that elites around the world have been quick to forgive Modi of his sins, now that he has enthusiastically embraced the neo-liberal agenda, promising to open wide the doors to foreign investment in India.
Roy also decries liberal support for poverty alleviation efforts and human rights, claiming that corporate control of Indian media allows plutocrats to control public debate. She further argues that corporate funding and control of NGO’s and foundations allows plutocrats to paint themselves as liberal activists by engaging in projects that skirt the edges of the issues. Shut out of public debate, radicals like Roy, are then painted as anti-national supporters of Marxist violence.
India’s nexus of wealthy plutocrats, corporations, and criminal politicians, enables a tiny minority to control the Indian economy. Stating that “corporate-endowed foundations, are the biggest funders of the social sciences and the arts,” she points out that “today in countries like India and Pakistan there is scarcely a family among the upper middle classes that does not have a child who has studied in the United States.”3 This nexus results in a seamless ideology that so permeates the consciousness that “it ceased to be perceived as an ideology at all. It became the default position, the natural way to be.”4
The second essay deals with the efforts of reformer Anna Hazare to combat India’s all-pervasive corruption. Hazare has been widely praised by the liberal media. Roy paints him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, using anti-corruption to push an inherently rightwing agenda.
In the third and fourth essays, Roy deals with the unending Kashmir issue. She journeys to Kashmir to meet with Muslim residents who have suffered at the hands of the Indian security forces. She accuses the Indian state of flooding Kashmir with troops and paramilitaries to repress violently the local population and cover up its inability and unwillingness to address Kashmiri concerns.
Essay number five is a short discourse on the undermining of Indian democracy. In the piece, Roy paints a picture of a state taking off the kid gloves and constructing a security regime capable of violently suppressing any protest against the neo-liberal agenda. While the essay is short, this is at the heart of Roy’s argument. Like many intellectuals well versed in critical thinking, Roy is able to turn standard arguments on their ear. The claim that economic liberalization and democracy are inherently linked lies at the heart of neo-liberal ideology. Roy argues that while this assertion is widely accepted, it is inherently false. She argues that neo-liberalism transforms democracy and places it at the service of corporate interests. Under this redefined democracy, members of the public are free to exercise their civil rights, as long as they steer well clear of economic issues. Redistributive justice is off limits, and protests against the economic injustice of neo-liberal capitalism are quickly and brutally suppressed in India.
The book’s final essay is framed around the execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri educator convicted by the Indian courts of being the “mastermind” behind the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. She claims that the government of India convicted Guru to send a clear message to the Kashmiris that it was hopeless to resist what she terms as “Indian occupation.” She also points out “the Indian economy is in considerable trouble. The aggressive, acquisitive ambition that economic liberalization unleashed in the newly created middle class is quickly turning into an equally aggressive frustration.”5 The execution, she claims, was part of a scheme by India’s ruling elite to “redirect” this frustration and head-off possible political destabilization by encouraging paranoia regarding the “terrorist threat.”
Like many Third Way thinkers, Roy believes that the Indian polity, which is purportedly divided between political parties from the Left, Right, and Center, is actually dominated by a neo-liberal consensus. All parties agree, she argues, that the massive liberalization of the Indian economy must proceed, regardless of the consequences. It is notable that in Roy’s view, this consensus includes the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). Long channeled into India’s political mainstream, the CPI-M is heavily influenced by the Communist Party of the Peoples’ Republic of China, and shares its commitment to neo-liberal economics. The purportedly political conflict between India’s political parties is in Roy’s eyes, a political drama, meant to distract India’s population, while economic liberalization proceeds unopposed.
In her Afterword, “Speech to the People’s University,” Roy addresses a group of occupy protestors in the United States, telling them that “you have reintroduced the right to dream into a system that tried to turn everybody into zombies mesmerized into equating mindless consumerism with happiness and fulfillment.” Turning her attention to the U.S., Roy alleges that Americans face many of the same problems as Indians. For “today we know that ‘the American way of life” – the model that the rest of the world is meant to aspire toward, has resulted in four hundred people owning the wealth of half of the population of the United States.”7 She concludes by stating that “somewhere along the way, Capitalism reduced the idea of justice to mean just ‘human rights,’ and the idea of dreaming of equality became blasphemous.”8
Roy’s writing in Capitalism (A Ghost Story, is highly polemical. It is meant to challenge the comfortable reality of the reader, force him/her to confront comfortable assumptions, and contemplate an embrace of anti-corporate activism. It serves a useful function. Intellectually capable individuals should not fall prey to the “Robinson Crusoe argument” that Capitalism is as natural as the air we breathe and there is therefore no reason to examine any other idea. There is nothing wrong with thinking outside the box.
However, if the polemical writing style is not for you, I recommend that you not give up on Roy, altogether. Her book Walking with the Comrades9 is her firsthand account of her stay with Naxalite guerrillas in India’s tribal heartland. It provides vivid insight into a phenomenon widely ignored in the United States. While not free of polemics, Roy makes it quite clear that she is not about to back Maoism. Instead, she argues that the Indian state should dismantle its massive military effort in the Maoist regions, sit down and talk with the Maoists about ending the violence, and demonstrate to the world that it is willing to do whatever it takes to help India’s poorest and most exploited populations, even if it means giving them control over their own land and resources and stopping the whole scale exploitation of India’s natural resources by massive multi-national corporations.
2. Page 8
3. Page 30
4. Page 32
5. Page 89
6. Page 93
7. Page 94
8. Page 96
9. Penguin Books, New York, 2011