Capitalism: A Ghost Story


Capitalism: A Ghost Story

Roy, Arundhati

London and New York, NY: Verso, 2014

ISBN: 9-781784-780319

127 pp.

In her latest collection of political writings, Arundhati Roy (whom it is obligatory to refer to as the Booker prize-winning author of The God of Small Things) describes the impact of the great transformation on Indian society. People and communities move from a situation in which many institutions play a role in their lives, including religion, social relations, recreation, work and the market, to one in which the market is the predominant institution in which they take the roles of producers and consumers. Capitalism brings all the joys of creative destruction, which many of course are unable to deal with and suffer as a result. Not the least of these is those who are displaced by the creation of the new geography of the emerging nation:

“The Dholera SIR [special investment region] is only one of the smaller Matryoshka dolls, one of the inner ones in the dystopia that is being planned. He will be connected to the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), a 1,500-km-long and 300-km-wide corridor with nine megaindustrial zones, a high-speed freight line, three seaports, six airports, a six-lane intersection-free expressway, and a 4,000-mw power plant (pp.16-7).”

I am aware of this from my own experience of visiting the Greater Noida region every year for the BIMTECH case study conference. Greater Noida incorporates a very extensive area of urbanization, in which industrial estates, residential areas, roads and educational institutions (but precious little functioning retail space) have been built on land once farmed by villagers. Those farmers were evicted and have subsequently launched a campaign of obstruction and stone-throwing that has disrupted construction over the past few years. If they have suffered from capitalism, then their situation under pre-capitalism – or feudalism – was hardly desirable either:

“In India the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-International Monetary Fund (IMF) ‘reforms’ middle-class – the market – live side by side with spirits of the netherworld, 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 to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty Indian rupees a da (p.8).”

Roy considers a wide range of issues in this slender volume, moving from the undermining of progressive institutions by right wing money to the reasons why Afzal Guru was put to death by the state at the time he was for his supposed involvement in the Parliament Attack of 2001. He of course was from Kashmir and it is that region, which Roy describes as the most heavily militarized in the world, that stands at the centre of the book. The abuses of the state, which are well-documented, are symbolic of the relationship between it and the poor and working-class Indian people. They are treated as expendable and demonized as terrorists if they resist depredation (there is a lot of this sort of stuff about). The author is known as an activist and suffered from ill-treatment by organized mobs for protesting against abuses of power and from pointing out inconvenient truths: “India hopes to manage [Kashmir] with the usual combination of force and poisonous Machiavellian manipulation designed to pit people against one another. The war in Kashmir is presented as a battle between an inclusive secular democracy and radical Islamists (pp.90-1).” Yet, she argues, it is Saudi money going in to the madrassas and there is precious little evidence that external interventions in the Kashmir-Pakistan-Afghanistan region have resulted in positive outcomes.

The book ends with a brief speech given to the Occupy movement in the USA. As with that movement and many other progressive movements, Roy is sharp and clinical in identifying what is wrong but less forthcoming when it comes to providing a practical manifesto of actions to improve the situation. She is far from the only worker to display this lack of practicality and, in fairness, this is not a book that promises political solutions. However, while contributing to the pessimism of the intellect for which Gramsci called, it does not help much with the optimism of the spirit for which he hoped.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University


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