Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013.
For more than a decade, Arundhati Roy has been on the front lines of struggle against capitalist globalization, imperialist war, military occupation, and emergent forms of ultra-nationalism, especially as it relates to Subcontinental politics.1 From her harsh criticism of India’s nuclear arms race with Pakistan, to her participation in the anti-dam project (Narmada Bachao Andolan Movement) which protested the dispossession of tribal lands by multinational corporations, to her “treasonable” condemnation of India’s violent military occupation of Kashmir, Roy has been able to draw attention to the hypocrisies of the Indian state’s claims to democracy, which under the banner of postcolonial independence have obscured the reality of deepening levels of inequality and injustice. What underlies Roy’s critique of the Subcontinent is the notion that the symbiotic relationship between the Indian ruling class and capitalist globalization eroded the promise of liberation that accompanied decolonization, leading to ever-increasing economic and social inequality for the bulk of the population. This is particularly true for the super-exploited Tribals who make up a large percent of those who have been expunged from the narrative of India’s economic “miracle,” what Roy refers to as the “Gush-up Gospel” of capitalism that has resulted in the privatization of everything and the erosion of democratic process.
The link between voracious accumulation and the erosion of democratic promise both in India and across the globe is the primary concern in Roy’s recent book, Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Using India as an example of how neoliberal capitalism has left vast social inequality in its wake, her short but poignant book represents her clearest attempt to analyze the corrosive character of accumulation on a world scale, the crisis of democracy both in India and across the globe, and the means by which the dispossessed are creating spaces of resistance in a time of perpetual crisis and war.
The first two sections of Roy’s book expose the ways in which the creation of “a good investment climate” in India has led to expanding impoverishment and bolstering ruling-class hegemony, through laws like the Special Powers Act, which allows the military to kill simply on the basis of suspicion of being a “terrorist.” As Roy points out, the state has conflated poverty with terrorism, thus making any talk of land reform and redistribution “undemocratic and lunatic” (10). Draconian measures have intensified with the repression of Maoist rebels in the forests of Central/Eastern India who have come to symbolize the emergent resistance to capitalist globalization.
As Roy asserts, the inequalities caused by capitalist accumulation are disguised by the state’s rhetoric of social justice. Roy draws attention here to how corporate control is facilitated through philanthropy and NGO-based institutional models that in the end seek to curtail the spread of radical solutions. While she draws attention to Gramsci’s notion of “cultural hegemony,” in which a certain sector of the intellectual class aligns itself with ruling-class interests, she also rightly points out how NGOs, which on the surface seem to be disconnected from state power, help nurture capitalist ideology by offering conciliatory gestures towards ruling-class authority and watered-down notions of social justice and human rights. “The Privatization of Everything,” writes Roy,
has also meant the NGO-ization of Everything. As jobs and livelihoods disappeared, NGO’s have become an important source of employment, even for those who see them for what they are. And they are certainly not all bad…. However, the corporate of foundation-endowed NGO’s are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally as shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within. They sit like nodes on the central nervous system, the pathways along which global finance flows. (33).
Perhaps what is most interesting about the NGO conglomerate, in Roy’s view, is the way it has reified and commodified the very idea of social justice, as a way of limiting forms of dissent and channeling resistance through the narrow prism of human rights discourse. For Roy, this constitutes a “conceptual coup.” As she explains, NGOs represent the “new” form of imperialist practice under the regime of flexible accumulation and neoliberal capital, by offering necessary carrots to desperate populations.
The rest of Roy’s book briefly exposes the injustices committed in the name of democracy, including India’s continued military occupation of Kashmir, the horrific effects of capitalist globalization on the world’s dispossessed, and the necessity of fortifying resistance so that it goes beyond the atomized and commodified ideology of human rights discourse. It is her writing on the occupation of Kashmir, however, that has drawn the most criticism in India, and also got her brought up on charges of sedition (75). As Roy has been arguing throughout the last decade, the Kashmiri independence struggle, which started as an Islamic militant uprising in the early 1990s, coincided with the rise of ultra-nationalism in India. Despite India’s inflexibility over Kashmir, Roy notes that “the once solid consensus on Kashmir suddenly seems a little fragile,” as more and more Indians are becoming aware of the futility of the situation, not to mention the growing sympathy of ordinary people to the plight of Kashmiris who have suffered from the occupation (72).
The most important thing about Roy’s current work is her emphasis on the importance of the Maoist revolutionary movement in Central/Eastern India, which she began to write about in detail after her visit with the insurgents in 2010. For Roy, the Maoists represent a significant departure from many of the forms of resistance occurring around the globe and thus something from which other movements against capitalist globalization can learn. Roy’s humanization of the guerrillas lays the foundation for the universalization of their struggle. She is attracted to the Maoists’ struggle because they are fighting a war on two fronts: on one hand, the Indian post-colony, and on the other, the multinational corporations who have ensconced themselves in the forests in the drive for profit – the motive behind the state’s militarization of the region, masked by the ideology of security and the façade of “democracy.”
In 2010 Roy journeyed into the forests of Dandakaranya to see first-hand what former Home Minister P. Chidambaram called India’s “single biggest internal security challenge,” a guerrilla force composed primarily of Adivasi armed with makeshift and outdated weaponry. While Roy’s current work shifts focus to the systemic forces of capital, the symbolic struggle of the Maoists is reflected in her overall concern with the question of resistance. Roy’s commitment to the Maoists’ struggle and the plight of the Dalits and other marginalized caste/class elements of Indian society can be traced back to her first and only novel, The God of Small Things2 and the tragic character of Velutha, an “untouchable” who has ties to the Naxalites. The novel is set in Kerala where the Communist Party of India was voted into power in 1957. It was the first electoral victory of a communist party in history, outside of the USSR. After the emergence of the Naxalites in 1967, places like Kerala and West Bengal witnessed the conflicts between the institutionalized Left and the insurgent Maoists which continue to this day. Velutha is self-conscious of his caste/class position in Indian society and defies the rigidity of the “old” ways through his dedication to communism and his labor organizing. Roy goes to great lengths to humanize him. Velutha’s brutal murder at the hands of the police draws attention to the continued plight of Dalits under the regime of caste inequality, despite the gestures to end the system by the Old Left establishment, which harbors the same caste-racism as non-Marxist characters in the book. Her writing of what she terms the “inner world” of characters like Velutha allows Roy to penetrate into the meanings of contemporary resistance for the most vulnerable of India’s population.
Her 2011 compilation of essays, Broken Republic, begins by evoking the irony of India’s internal war and thus its claims of being a democracy, a starting point for her journey into the “other India”: “When a country that calls itself a democracy openly declares war within its borders, what does that war look like?”3 Roy insists that militant resistance for the Maoists is organized according to the logic of existence through violence, as the super-exploited and brutalized Adivasi have no recourse to fight injustices through state-run agencies and the electoral process. This is also why Roy is attracted to the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (Revolutionary Adivasi Women’s Organization), a radical feminist group which originated in Maoist ranks and has been viciously attacked by the Salwa Judum in recent years as a result of its resilience in the face of institutionalized violence and deprivation.
Roy sees the Maoists’ resistance as a form of counter-violence against the structural violence that is committed daily in the name of multinational capital and the preservation of economic inequality.4 Although Roy is always cautious not to prescribe what the global insurgency should be doing, her writing on the lessons and limits of the Maoist struggle sides with revolution over reform. As she wrote in 2010:
The insurrection in the Indian countryside, in particular the tribal heartland, poses a radical challenge not only to the Indian State, but to resistance movements too…. It questions the ethics, as well as the effectiveness, of different strategies of resistance. [These questions] have been asked persistently, peacefully, year after year in a hundred different ways…and [by] hundreds of other people’s movements…. The Government of India’s only answer has been repression, deviousness and the kind of opacity that can come from a pathological disrespect for ordinary people.5
What underlies Roy’s theorization of insurgent knowledge is persistent inquiry into the nature of survival. For it is clear that revolutionary activity in the imperialist centers differs greatly from that to which the Maoists have dedicated themselves, particularly as it relates to the question of violence. For those of us working in the centers of capitalist globalization, the question of militancy should be incorporated into our political activism and organizing as a revolutionary emblem in the continuing fight within and against reformist thinking. What is happening in the forests of India is symbolic of the potentialities of revolutionary thinking. The Maoists’ refusal to submit to the mechanisms of power should be infused into a universal determination to end the horrors of voracious accumulation no matter what the level of class struggle. It is in this sense that radical organizing should entail solidarity with what is perhaps the largest communist movement in the world at the present time.
Contrary to writers like Nirmalangshu Mukherji, who erroneously argues that the Maoists have turned the Adivasi into cannon fodder, Roy creates space for a dialectical view of violence based on the question of tactics rather than morals, a position which de-centers attempts by liberals to conflate state and Maoist violence into one continuum.6 As Roy writes, “People in situations like this do not have easy choices…. The decision whether to be a Gandhian or a Maoist, militant or peaceful, or a bit of both…is not always a moral or ideological one. Quite often it’s a tactical one.” She goes on to say that Gandhian Satyagraha is effective as long as there is a sympathetic audience, one that sees winning reformist gains as a form of resistance.7
There are two summations I would draw from Roy’s analysis of voracious accumulation and the inevitability of resistance to its hegemony. First, what is often overlooked in discussions of revolutionary militancy is the systemic violence committed daily by all capitalist states, affecting millions. The struggle to obtain revolutionary equality and re-establish the rights of peoples lies at the core of the Maoists’ ostensible brutality. Whether their violence is directed against the Indian para-military, the fascist ultra-nationalists, or the institutionalized Left, the insurrection has established a model for radical collectivity that reignites the internationalism of class struggle. Roy’s analysis evokes important questions: Is the violence of the capitalist class more ethical than revolutionary violence? Can violence be avoided in the global class struggle to overthrow the voraciously destructive system of capitalism? Indeed, for those of us dedicated to building universality of class struggle to achieve radical change, the question of violence and its relation to going beyond resistance is imminent.
Reviewed by John Maerhofer
City University of New York
1. See Roy’s The Cost of Living. New York: Modern Library, 1999; The Algebra of Infinite Justice. London: Penguin, 2001; and Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers. Chicago: Haymarket, 2009. On Kashmir, see Tariq Ali, et al., Kashmir: The Case for Freedom. London: Verso, 2011.
2. New York: Random House, 1997. Roy’s recent work on caste inequality can also be seen in her introduction to B.R. Ambedkar’s controversial text, The Annihilation of Caste, first published in 1936. Ambedkar sharply differed with Gandhi over the issue of caste, as Roy outlines in her “The Doctor and the Saint,”
3. Broken Republic, 44.
5. Broken Republic, 177.
6. See Mukherji, The Maoists in India, 106-136. To reiterate, there has been violence on both sides in the conflict, especially against leftist activists working in tribal villages. Mukherji wrongly condemns militant violence as inconsistent with electoral politics, which is why he criticizes the strategy by the CPI (M).
7. Broken Republic, 207.