Voice of dissent

Print edition : August 22, 2014
Arundhati Roy’s analysis of capitalism and its exploitative strategies is a vehement diatribe against neo-imperialism and the corporatisation of culture and economic warfare.

THE amalgamation of democracy and the free market economy has moved all motivation towards profit. Such “predatory capitalism” stands behind the strengthening of neoliberalism which cohabits with governments that remain ever incorrigible in collaborating with economic giants for short-term gain. As Arundhati Roy aptly asks in her new collection of essays, “Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedom and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?”

We live in an unprecedented economic global landscape with all its intricacies. The underbelly of poverty, hunger and social apartheid, which are witnessed in the Third World, are the results of the callous financial interests of Western institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, that operate surreptitiously beneath the discourse of human rights and economic well-being of the underdeveloped economies, all the time posing arrogantly as the benefactors of the human race. The new world order is a fiction; financial institutions remain in cahoots with the powerful nations and their military ambitions that focus on economic gain through coups and destabilisation of regimes around the world.

Arundhati Roy’s detailed and impassioned analysis of capitalism and its exploitative strategies, aimed at economic development, is a vehement diatribe against neo-imperialism and the corporatisation of culture and economic warfare. Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican activist, emphasised in 1914: “It is not only by shooting bullets in the battlefield that tyranny is overthrown, but also by hurling ideas of redemption, words of freedom and terrible anathema against the hangmen that people bring down dictators and empires.” Arundhati Roy, using her words as her arsenal, views large-scale changes transforming the very foundations of the world order through the renewal of conventional forms of sovereign statehood, political community and international governance.

She has, over the years, moved away from the world of fiction writing to the Far Left ideology of anti-capitalism and political dissent, to being a strong critic of American corporate values which result in widespread poverty and exploitation of the masses. It is the crisis of legitimation that lies behind the imperialist motives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Fulbright or Rockefeller Foundations that have succeeded in co-opting the intellectual and the academics into falling in line with the dominant ideology. This is the treason of the intellectual: “Armed with their billions, these NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and film-makers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation.”

Her account of economic repression and corporate penetration into the heartland of the poor rural masses is vivid, scathing and provocative. Her concerns pertain particularly to the Indian subcontinent and the aftermath of free market neoliberal politics that has forced thousands of farmers into committing suicide as a result of large-scale dispossession of rural land that is swallowed up either by dams or by profit-hungry corporates that ruthlessly exploit the natural resources. She writes of the scramble for development that has left in its wake environmental catastrophes, of neocolonial interventions in Kashmir that have made the valley “the most highly militarised zone in the world”, influenced as it is by the geopolitics of Islamist extremism, American involvement and the blatant Indian nationalism with its right-wing Hindutva overtones. Dissent is not allowed, and activists are severely punished or put under state surveillance. Political insight, combined with her narrative skills, creates a bleak picture of the impact of globalised capitalism on India’s democracy and exploited millions.

Commenting on censorship in India, Arundhati Roy underscores the fundamental right of free speech: “It’s quite fascinating that as you legislate more about free speech and as you make more of a song and dance about free speech, in fact, in India what the Urdu and Persian poet Ghalib could say, in the nineteenth century, about his relationship with Islam, nobody could say today.”

The deportation of the radio journalist David Barsamian in 2011, or Professor Richard Shapiro, an anthropologist from the U.S., in 2010, makes an interesting analysis of Indian democracy in her essay “Dead Man Talkin” and shows how the Indian state disallows debates on controversial areas on which it would rather remain silent.

Explaining the reasons why he was forced to leave India, Barsamian says, “It’s all about Kashmir. I’ve done work on Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Narmada dams, farmer suicides, the Gujarat pogrom, and the Binayak Sen case. But it is Kashmir that is at the heart of the Indian state’s concerns. The official version must not be contested.”

Interestingly, academics visiting India need security clearance while corporate heads do not: “So somebody who wants to invest in a dam or build a steel plant or buy a bauxite mine is not considered a security hazard, whereas a scholar who might wish to participate in a seminar about, say, displacement or communalism, or rising malnutrition in a globalised economy, is.”

Arundhati Roy’s prose is as biting as ever. The collection of essays on the ever-evolving complexion of democracy in an era of neoliberal economies demands this incisive analysis of those dark events from the atrocities in Kashmir to the hanging Afzal Guru, from the incarceration of revolutionaries such as Binayak Sen to the rise of Anna Hazare.

Her main interrogation bases itself on two questions: “What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning?” Probably, the angry poetic response of Arundhati Roy is the answer: “One day in Dantewada too the dead will begin to speak. And it will not just be dead humans, it will be the dead land, dead rivers, dead mountains, and dead creatures in dead forests that will insist on a hearing.” At the outset, she blames democracy’s “nearsightedness” as its chief blemish, and paradoxically, its only attractive feature. We survive for the moment and create a future to which we turn a blind eye. It is with this undertone that Arundhati Roy’s acts of resistance become meaningful at the very moment of crisis, may it be the Gujarat genocide, the attack on Parliament House, the disturbing uprising in Kashmir in 2008 or the Mumbai terrorist attack. Although one has read most of the essays that appear in this anthology elsewhere, they together strike a note of exasperation and rage at the dismal evolution of Indian democracy.

The book has no single narrative. The interplay of seething anger and humour goes a long way in cynically shattering received “truths”. The various essays and speeches are both agitational and inspirational in nature, presenting eye-opening as well as provocative responses and views that together build this fascinating collection of dissident writing traced through the global use of rebellion against capitalism and racial bigotry.

In this free-market dramatics, writing from the heart of the matter in areas of social justice, universal human rights, the rule of law and transnational camaraderie becomes singularly an aspiration of survival and a motivating force behind all liberatory movements. The book is indeed a lucid and balanced account of some of the most important intellectual and political debates in contemporary Indian history. The inspiration of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and John Berger works for Arundhati Roy in ways that make a substantial difference to the exposure and castigation of cross-border terrorism, the infringement of human rights, the curse of ethnic cleansing and the lack of human concern for ecological balance.

As Zygmunt Bauman would agree, A state is “social” when it promotes the principle of the communally endorsed, collective insurance against individual misfortune and its consequences. There is a need to remember that the status of the citizens lies in their becoming not only beneficiaries of state policies, but also actors in the onward march of collective responsibility and shared interests for communal harmony and the end of inequality.

I surmise, like Arundhati Roy, the public will have to learn to oppose those “dedicated to keeping the world safe for capitalism”.

As Karl Marx said, “The philosophers have merely interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.”

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