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Book Review: Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy

February 18, 2017

Capitalism: A Ghost StoryCapitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this concurrently with Marvel’s Atlas Era Battlefield was particularly revealing while being quite the coincidence (having had multiple previous interlibrary loan requests for that book fail). The propaganda of that book came to the hilt in Paul Reinman’s “Atrocity Story” and was a major theme throughout those 1952-3 stories, yet never does the United States go to war over atrocities committed in the name of capitalism, atrocities committed by itself as well as by a major ally, such as here, in India.

India lumps together all anti-capitalists as Maoists, which are labeled, “The Single Largest Security Challenge in India” (12). In China under Mao Zedong, “Long live the dictatorship of the proletariat” was a standardized motto. As I noted in my review of Correspondence Volume 3: 1891-1895 of Friedrich Engels and Paul Lafargue, the Leninist editors complained that Karl Marx and his initial collaborators placed too little emphasis on the dictatorship of the proletariat, for Marx, a temporary, transitional form of government ultimately designed to lead to a dwindled, minimalistic state apparatus performing only the bare essentials of government. No Marxist economy (and it must be stressed that Marxism/communism is an economic theory, not a system of government) has been established on a national level anywhere on Earth. Leonard Shlain, in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, posits that for the Soviet Union and China, the fetishization of the dictatorship of the proletariat became the fundamentalist quasi-religion of newly-literate societies, while Terry Eagleton, in Why Marx Was Right, shows that for Marx, communism was a corrective to the excesses of capitalism; a transition from feudalism to communism as Russia and China attempted was something Marx already predicted would fail, because the apparatuses of high production would not be in existence, thus Marx, anti-capitalist as he was, encouraged the development of capitalism in feudal societies. These dictatorships of the proletariat expanded, rather than contracted as Marx intended, into totalitarian state capitalism, with little to do with communism beyond the name of the party. It also sought to eliminate money, as we see in the fictions of Edward Bellamy, L. Frank Baum, and Gene Roddenberry.

This is much the same situation that we find in India and the United States, except that the dictators are generally not proletariats. They are capitalists who seized control of public goods in order to sell them back to the public at a profit. When the public fights back, India’s government labels them Maoists. The collusion of government and big business capitalists is called fascism, and that is the true enemy of the people, not communism. “The sanctity of private property never applies to the poor,” Roy tells us (10). The state hands over the private property of the poor to large corporations for “special economic zones” or SEZs. It’s perfectly fine for a corporation to take poor people’s private property for auto manufacturing, Formula One racing, chemical plants, highways, dams, or other infrastructure projects. “As always, local people are promised that their displacement from their land and the expropriation of everything they had is actually part of employment generation. But by now we know that the connection between GDP and job growth is a myth. After twenty years of ‘growth,’ 60 percent of India’s workforce is self-employed, and 90 percent of India’s labor force works in the unorganized sector” (ibid). This corresponds with Greg LeRoy’s findings for the United States in The Great American Jobs Scam.

After three years of “low-intensity conflict” that has not managed to “flush” the rebels out of the forest, the central government has declared that it will deploy the Indian army and air force. In India, we don’t call it war. We call it “Creating a Good Investment Climate.” Thousands of soldiers have already moved in. A brigade headquarters and airbases are being readied. One of the biggest armies in the world is now preparing its Terms of Engagement to “defend” itself against the poorest, hungriest, most malnourished people in the world. We only await the declaration of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which will give the army legal impunity and the right to kill “on suspicion.” Going by the tens of thousands of unmarked graves and anonymous cremation pyres in Kashmir, Manipur, and Nagaland, we might judge it to be a very suspicious army indeed. [citing Human Rights Watch. “Getting Away with Murder: 50 Years of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA),” August 2008 – “Human rights groups have long called for an independent investigation and forensic tests to establish the identity of those in the graves, but the government has yet to respond to that demand.”] (13/100 n. 18)

Paralleled with Reinman’s “Atrocity Story,” we wonder why the United States has not declared war on India, but the answer is obvious. The Korean War was never about stopping atrocities. That was simply the public face that the average American citizen could really latch onto. It was really the fear of anti-capitalism that led the United States to fight the Korean War, obvious now in a way that may not have been at the time, although I doubt the average American today believes that, though most educated people do. That’s why businesses now manipulate higher education to further the interests of capitalism rather than teach students to learn the truth and think critically.

I recently earned flak on Twitter, as usual, for my “cop killers are heroes” meme, an Overton window designed to match the atrocities of police to the constant adulation of them to the vilification of cop killers. When police are left unpunished by the courts, who is left to protect us but cop killers? I have never defended any particular cop killer, other than to facetiously wish they had been present at acts of police brutality. Ankit Garg, though the story was a few years old by the time I posted it, was awarded the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry on Republic Day after showing stones up the vagina of schoolteacher Soni Sori to get her to “confess” that she was a Maoist courier. While the stones were removed at a hospital in Kolkata and presented in an evidence bag to the Supreme Court by other activists, she was still in prison as Garg received his commendation. In a footnote citing the newspaper The Hindu, Roy notes that Sori was acquitted of six of the eight charges against her, but still in jail in Chhattisgarh (14/100 n. 19). “What is the purpose of police other than to be enforcers of the capitalist class?” is the question of the reasonable person at the veneration of Ankit Garg or the $100,000 salary for Daniel Pantaleo, murderer of Eric Garner on unproven allegations denied by eyewitnesses that he was engaging in a civil offense on the level of a parking violation in supposedly-liberal New York City. The police are ostensibly a public good, paid for by every working person in the community, but it practice, as shown in Chris Hedges’s Wages of Rebellion, serve as the hired thugs of the wealthiest 1%. Wall Street traders pay no taxes on their transactions. Shouldn’t they be punished as Eric Garner was? Oops, no, the wealthiest 1% ensured that cigarettes would have high taxes, and Wall Street transactions would have none. The law and justice are often completely unrelated, in spite of G-Man John O’Gorman’s faith otherwise in L. Frank Baum’s Mary Louise Solves a Mystery. In the United States, blacks and Latinos are the primary target of such so-called “justice.” In India, it’s the Adivasis (the caste of which Soni Sori is part) and Dalits (“Untouchables,” or, as my 8th grade social studies teacher, Maria Nichols, would say, “Super Duper Pooper Scoopers,” since they are so often forced to do sewer work. One of my Occupy friends is a Dalit, and his skin is darker than most of the black people in the group. And the idea that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi eliminated the caste system is woefully incorrect.

As cited in my review of Nicole Aschoff’s The New Prophets of Capital, foundations such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford are opaque and unaccountable organizations that present themselves as charitable but really exist to further their own capitalistic interests, such as forming the NAACP to keep blacks away from communism—Roy details Rockefeller’s co-optation of Martin Luther King, Sr. (38). They are the funders (and, except for Ford, founders) of the Council on Foreign Relations, which has been the source of all presidents of the World Bank—the only exception having been a Rockefeller trustee and Chase Bank president).

At Bretton Woods, the World Bank and the IMF decided that the US Dollar should be the reserve currency of the world, and that in order to enhance the penetration of global capital it would be necessary to universalize and standardize business practices in an open marketplace. It is toward that end that they spend a large amount of money promoting Good Governance (as long as they control the strings), the concept that of the Rule of Law (provided they have a say in making the laws), and hundreds of anticorruption programs (to streamline the system they have put in place). Two of the most opaque, unaccountable organizations in the world go about demanding transparency and accountability in the governments of poorer countries. (24)

It is no wonder that Filene’s Basement went out of business. Edward Filene believed in more equitable distribution of national income and giving workers affordable access to credit to create a mass consumption of society. Capitalists loved the latter to keep the populace in debt, but have thoroughly rejected the former, its corollary (27).

The gathering of information to control people is fundamental to any ruling power. […] People don’t even have clean drinking water, toilets, or food, or money, but they will have election cards and [Unique Identification] Numbers. Is it a coincidence that the UID project run by Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of Infosys, ostensibly to “deliver services to the poor,” will inject massive amounts of money into a slightly beleaguered IT industry? […] Nilekani’s technocratic obsession with gathering data is consistent with Bill Gates’s obsession with digital databases, numerical targets, and “scorecards of progress” as though it were a lack of information that is the cause of world hunger, and not colonialism, debt, and skewed profit-oriented corporate policy.

I refer my readers to my aforementioned review of The New Prophets of Capital and my review of Robert H. Frank’s Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy for why Bill Gates’s ideas about education, capitalism, and success are incredibly dubious and dangerous.

“How do you turn protestors into pets?” Roy asks. “Martin Luther King Jr. made the forbidden connections between Capitalism, Imperialism, Racism, and the Vietnam War. As a result, after he was assassinated, even his memory became toxic, a threat to public order.” As they did in life to the father, foundations eradicated the son’s legacy to create something wholly contrary, transforming Black Power into Black Capitalism (38). The Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Change cosponsored a lecture series called “The Free Enterprise System: An Agent for Nonviolent Social Change.” Roy replies with a sarcastic “Amen” (39). Nelson Mandela was similarly co-opted; he “deferred completely to the Washington Consensus. Socialism disappears from the [African National Congress] agenda” (ibid). The Ford Foundation, assisted by right-wing Hindu organizations, is now trying to turn the Dalit Panthers into Dalit Capitalism (40). I’ll never forget when Fox News commentator Jessie Lee Peterson tried to co-opt Dr. King’s legacy by saying that King was against unions. This shows how seriously compromised the Federal Communications Commission has become, which is not to say that the FCC’s demand that television “serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity” was ever strictly adhered to. I was questioning this in college, when I still self-identified as a conservative but saw the inherent contradictions of commercial businesses licensing the spectrum, which the government is now selling outright.

Roy devotes the next chapter to self-righteous capitalist Anna Hazare, who paid big bucks to have himself arrested and jailed for a hunger strike demanding the passage of a so-called anticorruption bill known as Jan Lokpal. Like the Adivasis, Hazare seeks the overthrow of the Indian state. The big difference is that the Adivasis are the poorest of the poor, violently attacked and openly murdered by the state, and that the supporters of the Jan Lokpal bill are wealthy and abetted by the Indian state over which the bill would give an opaque private organization ultimate authority of investigation, surveillance, and prosecution—Gandhian tactics for an anti-Ghandian bill (49-51). “Does the solution to the problems faced by ordinary people lie,” Roy asks, “in addressing the structural inequality or in creating yet another power structure that people will have to defer to?” (51-52).

Meanwhile the props and the choreography, the aggressive nationalism and flag-waving of Anna’s Revolution are all borrowed from the antirerservation protests, the World Cup victory parade, and the celebration of the nuclear tests. They signal to us that if we do not support The Fast, we are not “true Indians.” The twenty-four hour channels have decided that there is no other news in the country worth reporting. (52)

This is reminiscent of the Iraq war message, supposedly justified by Saddam Hussein’s use of U.S.-provided weapons to kill “his own people” (although he didn’t consider the Kurds his own people, which the Indian government would never publicly say of the Adivasis). Only one of my two uncles, both born in 1935, is still alive, and he’s been unwilling to speak to me since he took me to dinner when I was in graduate school, and I voiced my opposition to the Iraq War which he brought up and adamantly insisted that George W. Bush was doing the right thing. He is my mother’s older brother (my other uncle was my father’s estranged brother, whom I never met and heard only once on the phone, although one of his daughters found my blog), and she tells me he voted for Trump, but that she still loves and gets along with him in spite this, or the fact that he put a buttered roll in her hair when they were kids (as though that’s comparable to my brother (in effect) getting paid to repeatedly stuff my head in the couch and struggling to breathe or kick me in the stomach right in front of my mother leaving the blackest bruise I have ever had and getting away with it). I haven’t refused to see my uncle. It’s up to him if we meet again.

As Roy notes, plenty of other people are fasting and suffering force-feedings in protest of things (like AFSPA) that actually harm the people but are not getting coverage from the supposedly-liberal media.

Now, by shouting louder than everyone else, by pushing a campaign that is hammering away at the theme of evil politicians and government corruption, [Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)] have very cleverly let themselves off the hook. Worse, by demonizing only the government they have built themselves a pulpit from which to call for the further withdrawal of the state from the public sphere and for a second round of reforms—more privatization, more access to public infrastructure and India’s natural resources. It may not be long before Corporate Corruption is made legal and renamed a Lobbying Fee.

Will the 830 million people living on twenty rupees a day really benefit from the strengthening of a set of policies that is impoverishing them and driving this country to civil war? (55)

Visa norms in India are an interesting peephole into the government’s concerns and predilections. Taking cover under the shabby banner of the War on Terror, the Home Ministry has decreed that scholars and academics invited for conferences or seminars require security clearance before they will be given visas. Corporate executives and businessmen 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 want to participate in a seminar about, say, displacement or communalism, or rising malnutrition in a globalized economy, is. Foreign terrorists with bad intentions have probably guessed by now that they are better off wearing Prada suits and pretending they want to by a mine than wearing old corduroys and saying they want to attend a seminar. (Some would argue that mine buyers in Prada suits are the real terrorists.) (58)

Roy’s next paragraph sounds like right out of the Donald Trump playbook regarding “fake news”—India’s government deported radio journalist David Barsamian for interviewing people in Kashmir and Jammu, whose stories differed from “official sources” about what has been going on there. “Who decides which ‘facts’ are correct and which are not?” asks Roy, and whether he would have been deported if he had kept inline with official accounts while ignoring major stories that went uncovered by the media, about what life is like in the densest military occupation in the world, or uprisings that to her mind, should have been seen as the “the Kashmir Spring” (59).

Roy, who has also won the Booker Prize for her work of fiction, The God of Small Things, shows her literary gifts, particularly in a scene in which the government and Indian nationalists (such as the ultra-right Muslim-slaughtering Hindu group Bajrang Dal) go after her own reportage of events in Kashmir, giving significant emotional weight to the seemingly trivial gifts of a family with whom she stayed (72-75). This includes potentially confusing chronological violation when she mentions that Soni Sori is “now… on the run” (61) in describing the authorities’ trumped-up of her nephew, Lingaram Kodopi, while, according to their own account, allowing Maoists with whom he was charged with conspiring, to escape, on September 9, 2011. The articles she cites on Soni Sori’s torture and imprisonment are from March 8, 2011 and May 1, 2013. Perhaps this is someone else with an interestingly coincidental name? Bollywood, in its narrative immaturity, would make something comic out of the potentially terrifying.

Roy concludes her book with a speech given to the People’s University of Occupy Wall Street the day after NYPD illegally cleared Liberty Park (a public park illegally sold by the city to a private developer named Zuccotti and now bearing his name) of the Occupiers. I will conclude my review by quoting its most poignant portion:

Today we know that “the American way if 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 the population of the United States. It has meant thousands of people being turned out of their homes and jobs while the U.S. government bailed out banks and corporations—American International Group (AIG) alone was given 182 billion dollars.

The Indian government worships U.S. economic policy. As a result of twenty years of the Free Market economy, today one hundred of India’s richest people own assets worth one-fourth of the country’s GDP while more than 80 percent of the people live in less than fifty cents a day. Two hundred fifty thousand farmers driven into a spiral of death have committed suicide. We call this progress and now think of ourselves as a superpower. Like you, we are well qualified, [sic] we have nuclear bombs and obscene inequality. (94)

Capitalism is working just the way it was intended to work. It is a pernicious evil that must be destroyed.

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